Crimes against humanity and international law: Justice without borders?
Who could be against international law? Surely the establishment of institutions of international justice like the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the ad-hoc criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda are representative of a new and more progressive era of international politics in which tyrants and dictators can no longer oppress and murder their people behind the barrier of state sovereignty? Organisations such as Amnesty International have argued that during the 1990s a new era of accountability has come into being, bringing the end of impunity, and peace and justice for all wherever they live.
Currently the president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, has been indicted by ICC on counts of crimes against humanity and of war crimes. Other commentators have argued that Israeli leaders should be indicted for the bombardment of Gaza. Crusading human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson has even called for the pope to be arrested and tried by the ICC for crimes against humanity.
However, the case for international law is far from being cut and dried. Scratch the surface and one will find that far from bringing in a new era of peace and accountability, so-called international justice serves to prolong conflict and disempowering people in weak states.
For example, the indictment of President Bashir has served to acerbate the conflict in Darfur, removing any onus upon anti-government forces to negotiate. Ultimately peace must be a political process of agreement and negotiation rather than a judicial one. International judicial intervention has prolonged the conflict in Darfur and increased the number of dead.
However, there are more problems with international justice – it is simply a fiction. The international judicial institutions established after the Cold War are institutions established by the West, for the West. When the ICC was being set up several years ago, the late Robin Cook (then UK foreign secretary) assured the nervous British and American establishments that ‘this is not a court set up to bring to book prime ministers of the United Kingdom or presidents of the United States’. Cook was being absolutely truthful – only African conflicts and African leaders are being tried and investigated at the ICC.
But this is not to argue for a more ‘equal opportunities’ international justice. When cheerleaders for international justice talk of a new era of accountability and the end of impunity, what exactly do they mean? In theory, domestic law is derived from the will of the citizens. In reality citizens of a state can vote against a government that has introduced laws that they do not like and change their government and the law of the land. Even in authoritarian states, governments can be held accountable by their citizens, as growing protests in China from both working and middle classes demonstrate. However, the people of Darfur (for example) can in no way hold the governments of the powerful states that have set up the ICC to account.
Whatever one might feel about the injustices of the world, no one should be under any illusion that international law can bring either peace or justice to anyone.
Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.
Dr Tara McCormack is a lecturer in international politics, University of Leicester; author, Critique, Security and Power: the political limits to emancipatory approaches. The debate Crimes against humanity and international law: justice without borders? Is taking place at the Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 31 October.
Picture:Getty ImagesTagged in: Omar al–Bashir, Rwanda, Yugoslavia
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