Former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor will soon go on trial for his many crimes. Amidst many negative political developments over the last few years, one clear improvement over the status quo is the increasing trend towards trying and punishing repressive dictators. Taylor will be third in six years, following Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic and, of course, Saddam Hussein.
To be sure, the trials of Saddam and Slobo did not exactly go like clockwork. Milosevic's trial took almost six years and he died in prison before it could be completed. Saddam's trial often seems on the verge of turning into a circus. And we don't yet know whether the UN-supported special tribunal scheduled to try Taylor is going to be any better than the one that bungled Slobo's trial.
Even so, the fact that these people are behind bars and facing punishment is a change from the period between the Nuremberg Trials and 2000, when even the most vicious of dictators rarely had to suffer a fate worse than going into exile to live off the ill-gotten gains they stashed away in their Swiss bank accounts.
Theories of criminal justice hold that the twin purposes of punishment are retribution and deterrence. There is no category of criminals more in need of both than Taylor and his fellow dictators.
Over the last century, repressive dictatorships have been responsible for over 100 million deaths If we can deter even a small percentage of this kind of carnage in the future, it will be more than worth it.
UPDATE: A standard criticism of these trials is that they only target dictators who run afoul of US or Western strategic interests. This is a very hard argument to make in the case of Milosevic, where there were few if any Western strategic interests involved (unless preventing mass murder is itself circularly defined as a "strategic" interest). It is an even tougher argument in the case of Taylor, which involved even fewer Western interests than that of Milosevic (and in any case the Western role in Taylor's overthrow and arrest was fairly modest). The Saddam case is different, of course. It clearly did involve major US interests not directly related to Saddam's record of repression. Even here, however, had Saddam been a relatively benign ruler, he would have been less likely to take many of the actions that led him to run afoul of the US in the first place (invading Kuwait, seeking to acquire WMD, supporting terrorists, etc.).