Africa is losing the battle for justice

That meddlesome International Criminal Court (ICC) is at it again. Whenever an African dictator turns around, there is Luis Moreno Ocampo with a warrant for his arrest. But there is good news for dictators. The African Union has pledged to protect the worst human rights abusers from the ICC’s claws.

In a statement, the African Union said that they would not cooperate with the ICC on Omar al-Bashir’s arrest. The reasons are simple: Africa has a lot of dictators who have few qualms about violating human rights, and letting one of them go to the Hague would set a precedent. Meanwhile, in Darfur, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic, all containing people the ICC wants to nab, atrocities continue apace. This is a victory for the dictators and a finger in the face of the victims.

Many African leaders see the ICC as a way for the West to interfere in the affairs of their respective states. The assumptions behind this talk is criminal. It is such an easy excuse for anything. Human rights are not “Western”, they are universal. Are Africans somehow inferior to Westerners? They do not deserve the same rights? And yet, this is what their leaders are telling them. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, said Martin Luther King, Jr. To disallow the ICC from doing its work in Africa is to doom the continent’s basket cases to more of the same killing it has been suffering from for as long as anyone can remember.

The real question, however, is is the ICC doing the right? The African Union behaved predictably. If you could go to jail because you let someone else go to jail, you would be rational to protect him. What are the alternatives to international institutions?

One system of justice that has been tried in Rwanda takes a more transitional approach. Transitional justice is the kind conducted in the aftermath of a war or something similar, intended to promote not winner’s justice but reconciliation, healing and moving on. (Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are of this idea.) Rwanda’s method is widely studied as a possible alternative to more formal criminal trials. It has its flaws but could be applicable in some situations. If it helps in ways the ICC cannot, it is worth attempting.

Rwanda’s is just one of many possible approaches to justice. However, none of them are being employed in Sudan at the moment. We will need to wait much longer to know the extent of the damage in Darfur and if Omar al-Bashir will ever face trial, or if the only justice he experiences is death.