This past week, Luis Moreno Ocampo, prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, said that he would suspend the planned prosecutions of members of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda. Ocampo came to the decision after meeting with Ugandan leaders who have become concerned that the threat of prosecutions may be preventing the unfolding of peace efforts currently underway. Press coverage over the current schism so far seems to steer clear of the complexity of obtaining justice in the midst of a conflict and focus more on making a simplistic story of the conflict between the ICC’s intent to prosecute, and the Ugandan government’s focus on peace.
The New York Times recently published a piece with the headline, “Atrocity Victims in Uganda Choose to Forgive.” The bent of the article seems to be that a battle of cultures is going on in which the ICC is pushing a foreign concept of “Western justice,” while Africa is more preoccupied with “forgiveness.”
Remarkably, a number of those who have been hacked by rebels, who have seen their children carried off by them or who have endured years of suffering in their midst say traditional justice must be the linchpin in ending the war.
It’s true that Uganda has its own ritual for forgiveness, and has used amnesty as an important component of getting rebels to lay down their weapons. But might this focus on “forgiveness” and “amnesty” have more to do with the fact that rebel leaders have said that issuing warrants against them will result in more violence and an end to any steps towards peace? While there is certainly room for a dialogue regarding cultural nuances of the concept of “justice,” it hardly seems like it should be the focal point of the discussion. Similar to Rwanda and South Africa, it seems likely that any post-conflict rehabilitation will involve both elements of forgiveness and prosecution.
Rather than making the main issue that of cultural difference, it seems more important to focus on what role the ICC should have in working with governments that are currently negotiating the end to conflicts. It is important to note that the concept of “Western justice” wasn’t so foreign as to keep the Ugandan government from asking the ICC, back in 2003, to investigate LRA abuses.
The problem is not that Ugandans have such a radically different understanding of justice. Rather, it is the same conundrum that the ICC faces in Sudan—the people with the guns get to call the shots—and guess what—they don’t want to be prosecuted. And when the warfare tactic of choice is to kill, rape, and recruit innocent civilians, it becomes necessary for either a peace agreement (involving amnesty) or massive military force. Considering that no country with a substantial military force seems to care much about Africa, governments find that they usually must resort to amnesties in order to end the violence.
So instead of arguing over the different definitions of justice and whether or not the ICC is a good thing, perhaps we should simply get more realistic about what it can and cannot achieve. The problem seems to be that we don’t have any other effective international deterrent. Prosecution usually comes after the apprehension of those who committed crimes. If the specter of ICC prosecution is the only thing that strikes fear in the hearts of members of the LRA and janjaweed militias, it would seem that the international community is missing a crucial force that the ICC is not in a position to provide.