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The wheels of international justice in Africa

Progress with the International Criminal Court has been very slow.
Martyn Drakard | 9 June 2010
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With World Cup fever about to peak, a May 31 soccer face-off between the president of Uganda and the secretary-general of the United Nations was bound to struggle in the media. But just for the record, Mr Yoweri Musuveni’s white-shirted Dignity team defeated Mr Ban Ki-moon’s Justice team 1-0. Survivors of wars in Uganda and Darfur played with them.

The occasion was a two-week ICC (International Criminal Court) conference in Kampala, Uganda. ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, ICC president, Sang Hyun Song and former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, are also at the conference.

In the eight years since the Court began operating, it has convicted no one. Investigations are under way in five countries -- Kenya, Uganda, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan – but all of them are in Africa. In March this year Bangladesh became the 111th party to the Rome Statute, while 37 others have signed but not yet ratified it.

The ICC deals with crimes like genocide, crimes against humanity, and rape as a weapon of war. It only intervenes when national courts do not or cannot act. Signatory states have the power and duty to arrest any person served with an ICC warrant who enters their territory.

Although – predictably – there were calls for Israel to be hauled before the ICC after the nine deaths in the Gaza flotilla incident last week, Israel is not a signatory to the Rome Treaty which created the court. Nor are superpowers the United States, Russia, India and China. The ICC has no jurisdiction over crimes committed by their citizens.

Early in June President Museveni formally assented to the ICC Act, enabling prosecution of perpetrators of war crimes in Uganda. The most wanted Ugandans are Joseph Kony, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel leader, and two of his commanders, Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen. Two other warrants for arrest were made on Vincent Otti and Raska Lukwiya, both of whom are now dead. At the request of the Ugandan government, the ICC has indicted the five men for their part in the more than 2,000 killings and 3,200 abductions in nearly 900 attacks carried out between July 2002 (when the Rome Statute came into force) and June 2004.

Some local people argue that the ICC is concentrating exclusively on Africa. A special court for the main Rwandan genocide perpetrators was convened in Arusha, Tanzania. Arrest warrants are also out for Omar Bashir, the only “wanted” sitting head of state, Muhammed Ali Abd al-Rahman, the Janjaweed militia leader and Muhammed Harun, former Sudanese State Minister for the Interior, for their part in the crimes committed in Darfur.

The ICC has already begun its trial of the Congolese rebel leader, Thomas Lubanga in January last year, followed by the trials of two other rebel leaders, Germain Katanga and Mathieu Chui. Jean-Pierre Bemba, former vice-president of Congo (DRC) is under arrest, awaiting trial.

Last week Luis Moreno Ocampo was in nearby Kenya, where he was given the government go-ahead to start an investigation on the crimes against humanity committed during the post-election violence there in 2008, and said that arrest warrants can be expected for at least two suspected perpetrators.

The ICC claims that it is not specifically targeting Africa. The whole of central Africa, from east to west, is volatile, with quickly-expanding populations trying to settle down politically, economically and socially as artificially-created nations. It also has immense mineral resources, most of which are yet to be tapped. The outcome has been sustained conflict in pockets of this wide region.

The United States has taken a dim view of the ICC. It has signed the treaty, but it has not ratified it. And despite positive vibes from the Obama administration, there is little chance that it will. Americans fear that the ICC could claim jurisdiction over US soldiers charged with imaginary war crimes or over American officials who created controversial foreign policy initiatives.

In Africa, there is less enthusiasm than one might think. Traditionally, Africans have had their own mechanism and remedies for large-scale crimes and for re-establishing peace and meting out justice. These are reflected in the “gacaca” (open-air) courts set up in Rwanda to cope with those suspected of organizing and carrying out the 1994 massacres. Mandela’s South Africa set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with the crimes of torture and repression in the years of apartheid.

Many people in northern Uganda, where there have been countless atrocities, prefer the local solution of “mato oput” (where both sides come together and drink a “bitter herb” of reconciliation), and let bygones be bygones. Forgive, forget and get on with life; the community has its ways of healing, and dealing with the perpetrators.

Let them be stopped by all means – by force of arms or negotiation; but even if they come back to the region, they will be sad men who won’t fit in. Whether or not their leaders go on trial in The Hague or are allowed to rejoin society after some time of community or penal service, many local people don’t see much difference. What they really want is peace and the means and opportunity to rebuild their communities.

Is this contempt for international justice and human rights or African “apathy”? Perhaps it is just a different perception, with the emphasis on reconciliation and rehabilitation rather than individual retribution. Perhaps the slender margin of victory for Dignity over Justice in the celebrity soccer match gives a clue about what most Africans really want.

Martyn Drakard writes from Kampala, Uganda.

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | Africa, ICC, justice, reconciliation
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