War crimes

2008-07-25 00:00

Familiarity with the term ethnic cleansing dates from the Balkan civil war of the early nineties. This week’s arrest of one of that war’s architects, Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic, is reason for satisfaction, which will increase when he is joined at The Hague by his military commander, Ratko Mladic. Both face charges of genocide.

Their victims, most memorably from the massacre at Srebrenica, were largely Muslim. Twenty others have already been convicted of Balkan atrocities. This puts paid to unwarranted claims that the International Criminal Court (ICC) works to a Western agenda. It has become a popular view since Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir was accused by the ICC prosecutor of genocide in Darfur.

This is a timely charge. Satellite imagery shows hundreds of blackened sites, the remains of villages attacked from the air and razed by militia who include the notorious Janjaweed. Well over two million people have been displaced and at least 250 000 have died. The scale and nature of the killing in an area of substantial oil reserves point directly to the government.

Modern international law rejects the notion that tyrants are free to abuse their fellow citizens without sanction. The ICC, in its quest for justice, has given meaning to the old adage about the long arm of the law. The warrants it issues largely concern conflicts that have involved regional insecurity and wider conflagration.

Both the African Union and Arab League argue that charges against al-Bashir will jeopardise current diplomatic efforts. This attitude allows a government to pursue murderous policy with impunity while making vague promises about peace. A crucial aspect of the ICC approach is symbolic. It sends a very definite signal to the Chinese who, in pursuit of self-interest, are breaking the United Nations embargo by equipping the Sudanese army and training fighter pilots.

The indictment of a sitting president takes international law into uncharted waters. But the ICC owes it to the people of Darfur to define the moral high ground. Whatever the complex nuances of diplomacy, it is imperative that the promise of eventual justice should be ever present.

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