Nick Grono is Deputy President of the International Crisis Group.
The decision of the International Criminal Court to order the arrest of Sudan’s President Omar Bashir for crimes against humanity and war crimes will reignite the debate over whether pursuing justice helps or hinders peace.
At one end of the spectrum are those who insist that any attempt to prosecute Bashir will obstruct efforts to end conflict in Sudan. But they have a difficult case to make, given the regime’s violent history, and the lack of any significant moves towards peace in recent years. Then there are justice advocates who argue there will be no peace in Sudan until Bashir and his henchmen are held accountable for their atrocities. However, while such an outcome is obviously highly desirable, history is replete with peace deals achieved at the cost of impunity for perpetrators of atrocities.
The reality is that we just don’t know if prosecuting Bashir will accelerate or delay the prospects of a sustainable peace in Sudan. It is a question we will only be able to answer with the benefit of hindsight.
But there is a bigger question we need to pose, the significance of which extends far beyond Sudan. That is whether prosecution of Bashir will cause other would-be perpetrators to think twice before unleashing violence against their own people? Or, to put it another way, can international justice deter leaders from committing atrocities against their own people?
In the preamble to the Court’s founding document, the Rome Statute, there is a clearly expressed determination “to put an end to impunity for the perpetrators of these crimes and thus to contribute to [their] prevention”, and it is not too difficult to demonstrate that the threat of criminal prosecution affects the calculations of abusive leaders. One of the reasons Zimbabwe’s President Mugabe is so determined to cling to power is his fear of being hauled before an international court. What is much harder to establish is whether potential proscecutions can so influence leaders as to actually prevent future conflicts.