Big-man syndrome

2013-10-17 00:00

WHAT about the victims? This is the appropriate response to last weekend’s discussion at the African Union (AU) meeting in Addis Ababa about the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague.

Amid growing clamour about the ICC’s perceived discrimination against Africa, the Security Council has now been petitioned to defer war-crime trials against Kenyan leaders. In doing so, the AU has countered its own objection: the ICC is a judicial arm of the United Nations and largely responds to cases referred to it from the parent body.

Ethiopian foreign minister Tedros Adhanom described the ICC as a political instrument dominated by condescending attitudes and double standards derogatory to Africa. Together with the United States, Russia, China, India and Israel, his country is one of 20 African nations (of 54) that have not ratified the Rome Statute of July 2002. Of eight current ICC investigations, all are in Africa, although the court has conducted preliminary examinations in Latin America and the Middle East, while a precursor to the ICC was the International Court for the Former Yugoslavia.

The ICC has achieved only one conviction: that of Thomas Lubanga, sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment for the war crime of recruiting child soldiers during the Ituri conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Rhetoric about Western attitudes is a red herring. The question African leaders should ask themselves is exactly why the bulk of the ICC’s investigative burden involves Africa. The answer lies in impunity. War, having become a primary means of exercising power in many parts of the continent, is now entrenched in regional economies. And to maintain this structure of warlordism, two particularly heinous crimes have become endemic: mass rape and the recruitment of child soldiers.

The tenor of the AU debate provides clarity about where real concern lies: with protecting leaders, especially heads of state, and the symbols of national sovereignty. Clearly, the big-man syndrome is alive at the AU.

There is much that is lacking in the ICC system. The failure of major powers to sign up is one, and the holding of trials in Europe, far way from the scene of human-rights crimes and the homes of victims in Africa is another.

But two of the most vociferous opponents of Adhanom’s views are Africans of immense moral stature: Desmond Tutu and Kofi Annan. Tutu has been predictably forthright, Annan more measured and analytical; both have been highly perceptive.

Tutu asks: who will prevent the next genocide and protect the persecuted? He accused leaders of Kenya and Sudan, whose current heads of state have both been indicted by the ICC, of waging “terror and fear”, giving supporters licence to “kill and rape”.

Significantly, he called for leadership from South Africa and Nigeria to oppose the ICC sceptics. Annan’s argument is that a withdrawal of African nations from the ICC would constitute a “badge of shame”.

He rejected the claim that the search for justice is an impediment to peace by pointing out that the two are inextricably linked; and that this view places too much emphasis on leaders who regard themselves as above the law. Future peace and democracy depend upon an inclusive process of justice.

The ICC is a court of last resort. Four of the cases currently under way are a result of referral by African countries themselves, and Annan makes the telling point that the ICC would be redundant if local courts had the will to deliver justice; or if the AU was to set up an effective criminal court. Abandoning justice in the hope of peace simply sets up the conditions for future conflict.

The ICC was established in the interests of victims in order to tip the balance away from impunity.

But there are a number of points worth considering. The ICC’s rules permit it to operate anywhere, so given the African case load it would make a great deal of sense to conduct its business somewhere on the continent.

And there is an arguable case for other forms of justice.

In Uganda, the war crimes of the Lord’s Resistance Army were tackled by a traditional reconciliation process called mato oput , a ritual involving a shared bitter drink from a calabash accompanied by truth telling, acceptance of responsibility, forgiveness and reparation.

It has much to commend it in dealing with the foot soldiers of conflict and reasserting the power of victims.

And it is these very people about whom the AU appears to care little as it seeks to protect the political establishment.

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