African business, politics and lifestyle
Putting Africa on trial?
Look down the list of the cases the International Criminal Court is pursuing – Congo, Central African Republic, Darfur, Uganda – and it doesn’t take long to spot the connection.
Of the dozen arrest warrants the court has issued, all have been against African rebels or officials. On Monday, the court begins its first trial - of Thomas Lubanga, accused of recruiting child soldiers to wage a gruesome ethnic war in northeastern Congo. Earlier this month, former Congolese rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba was in court for a decision on whether to confirm charges of ordering mass rape to terrorise civilians in the Central African Republic.
The judges are also deciding whether to indict their first head of state, Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, accused by the court’s prosecutor of instigating genocide and other war crimes in Darfur. All those being pursued by the prosecutor reject the accusations against them.
There is no doubt there were atrocities in all the conflicts in question – families, villages and countries scarred for ever by murders, rapes, mutilations, kidnappings and burnings.
The question is why the court is only targeting conflicts in Africa, which may have a higher proportion of troubles than other continents, but certainly has no monopoly on evil. Ongoing or recent conflicts elsewhere include Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia-Georgia, Israel-Palestinians and Sri Lanka among others.
“We have the feeling that this court is chasing Africa,” Benin’s president, Thomas Boni Yayi, commented last year of the moves to prosecute Sudanese President Bashir. Boni Yayi is no maverick. He is the leader of a peaceful pro-Western country with a record of democracy as good as any on the continent.
One explanation for the ICC’s focus on Africa could be that justice systems on the continent are not in a position to pursue those accused of war crimes.
“The ICC is a court of last resort. It will not act if a case is investigated or prosecuted by a national judicial system unless the national proceedings are not genuine, for example if formal proceedings were undertaken solely to shield a person from criminal responsibility,” the court says.
But it is far from clear that those who may have committed war crimes outside Africa are being pursued or could be pursued by local justice systems.
Another reason for putting so much weight on Africa might be that it is relatively easy and uncontroversial. Its states and rebel factions are not particularly influential. The conflicts in Africa are not at the heart of any global struggles that could result in major diplomatic ructions.
The risk for the court, though, might be a loss of credibility within the continent and beyond. The attempt by the court’s prosecutor to bring charges against President Bashir has certainly made some African states ponder whether it was sensible to sign up to and ratfiy the 2002 Rome statute that established the court.
African support has been significant. Of those that have become “States Parties”, 30 are from Africa. Compare that to the one (Jordan) in the Middle East. The United States has not signed up. Nor has China or Russia.
Is the court targeting Africa disproportionately or do its actions simply reflect a disproportionate number of war crimes committed there? What will it mean for the court’s credibility if it does not tackle atrocities elsewhere? Should we just be pleased that a start is being made to prosecuting those accused of war crimes, wherever they were committed?