Government cynicism and the transitional justice dream in crisis

Government cynicism and the transitional justice dream in crisis©DELIL SOULEIMAN / AFP
Syrian Democratic Forces fighters in part of Raqa retaken from from IS on June 14, 2017
2 min 7Approximate reading time

What a revealing new development in terms of government attitudes towards international justice: Twenty years ago, it was a source of immense hope, but now it has been reduced to begging from the public to fund the International Mechanism for Syria that was nevertheless set up by the UN General Assembly to gather evidence on serious crimes committed during the Syrian war.   

The recent article by our Hague correspondent Stéphanie Maupas sharply reflects the troubled state of international justice and transitional justice more widely. Transitional justice was conceived in the 1990s and integrated into the vision of the time, when the US was the only Superpower and people dreamed of societies moving towards a democratic model rooted in rule of law. But the End of History imagined by a bestseller of that period did not happen. The Messiah, carrying under his arm Emmanuel Kant’s project of perpetual peace, did not come. That is to say, not in today’s contexts, which are infinitely more dangerous and complex than the end of a dictatorial regime giving way to nascent democracy as in Argentina and Chile in the 1980s or South Africa in the 1990s.

So we should not be surprised that Mali, where Jihadist groups are still launching attacks in much of the country, is having trouble setting up a Truth Commission. How can Truth Commissions work properly in places where there is continuing insecurity in much of the country?

African cooperation?

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is itself in deep trouble. Let us look at one of its supposed successes in which Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda says cooperation from the Ugandan and Central African governments allowed the transfer to the ICC of Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) senior commander Dominic Ongwen, currently on trial in The Hague. According to Adam Branch’s article Dominic Ongwen on Trial: The ICC’s African Dilemmas, which appeared in The International Journal of Transitional Justice, this “African cooperation” was brought about by an armed group formed from ex-Seleka militia in the Central African Republic (CAR) and which is itself being investigated for war crimes by the ICC! This group handed Ongwen over to US forces present in the CAR, says the article, and it was they who transferred him to the ICC.  

This is a far cry from the “excellent” African cooperation vaunted by the ICC, whilst the role of the US and ex-Seleka – who tried to claim the 5 million dollar reward for catching an LRA leader – were not talked about! It was purely political considerations, involving a State that is not an ICC member and a rebel group denounced by the UN for its grave human rights abuses that led to Dominic Ongwen‘s arrest and trial in The Hague.

In this world where Realpolitik uses the law as a weapon, should we be surprised that States vote for a Mechanism on crimes in Syria but fail to fund it? This gap between words and deeds is only one symptom of a much deeper crisis. How can Western governments remain credible in the eyes of developing countries if they preach democracy, rule of law and justice whilst the US sells 110 billion dollars of arms to   Saudi Arabia, whose armed forces in Yemen are clearly not very bothered about respecting the Geneva Conventions, and whilst Europe closes its borders to desperate migrants and refugees?