As if on cue, the International Criminal Court has delivered its first war crimes verdict before the #Kony2012 Twitter ink is dried and the template barbarism of a Ugandan fanatic has yielded its home above-the-fold.
I deploy the phrase ‘template barbarisms’ because the third-tier Congolese thug Thomas Lubanga, of whom I confidently assume you’ve heard little before today, resembles the now famous Joseph Kony, of which I’m equally confident you’ve heard a good deal. The tribal warlord trope is depressingly unoriginal, as are its signature crimes of rape, murder, and child abduction for the purpose of enforced military service. As the world considers this inaugural verdict of the International Criminal Court, some necessary criticisms will float to the surface. No one however can say that the ICC has no use: barbarism and fanaticism, like crime as a whole, never sleep.
The criticisms ought to get a good airing. In the late nineteenth century, the official and ancient boundary between civilian and soldier was erased. The parallel introduction of citizen-centered industrialized murder awoke the world to crimes so horrendous they could only be described as being “against humanity.” In both the first and second world wars, there were state organized campaigns of genocide. The Nuremberg trials established the principle of supranational — and even universal — justice, entrenching the ideas that there existed a civilized human community and that this community must stand vigilant against the work of racial cleansing and mass slaughter. But the world as a whole has not endorsed the practical measures which issue from these high-minded principles. And since the genocidaires tend to be the victors, they not only write the history, but they also have a role in determining the course of justice.
This deference to the good graces of sovereign nations is built into the Rome statute which established the ICC. Prior to the creation of this permanent international court, the tedious and drawn-out work of pursuing criminals and crimes against humanity had to be renewed with each fresh violation. Imagine beginning from scratch, with each outbreak of fanatical nationalism and tribal bloodlust from Yugoslavia to Rwanda to Iraq. Proceeding in this fashion, the pursuit of war criminals had become an inefficient and laborious exercise of reinventing the wheel. It’s therefore at least a matter of probable advantage that a standing court is ready for the inevitable business of entrepreneurial depravity.
It’s also encouraging, a decade into the ICC mandate, to see a known child predator brought to the courtroom. But that encouragement is watered down, for me at least, by the knowledge that other known abusers and exploiters of children continue to get a pass, for reasons which suggest a much deeper and cynical corruption. Rogue elements are brought to justice while certain respectable officials (see my comment above on the victorious genocidaires) evade their day in court. Who decides who is ripe for delivery to the Hague, and when? The answer is political leaders, who in some cases have their own ugly past, political agenda, and revisionist impulses.
This deference to national sovereignty was heavily lobbied by the permanent Security Council member of the United Nations, the United States of America. A non-signatory nation, the U.S. would only deliver its citizens voluntarily on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. Non-signatory states may be pressured to oblige the court, but only by a directive of the Security Council members — who constitute the bulk of the non-signers. As a result, the court’s business is largely an inevitable matter of power politics, the list of those having a good and hard time of it having been drawn up by those self-guaranteed to go gently into the good night.
If you think this overly cynical, consider that the ICC’s investigations are currently limited to the world’s least politically-connected continent: Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Jean-Pierre Bemba, Liberia’s Charles Taylor, Uganda’s Joseph Kony, and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. There’s no shortage of crime in Africa, but there’s no monopoly either. The Kony 2012 video was at least correct in one of its assumptions. The politics of public opinion matter, even in the presumably impartial business of justice. It’s too bad that as the world is so suddenly engrossed in a viral video, there’s so much less attention to, and awareness of, an imperfect but fledgling effort to take the civilized world’s fight against crime to the next logical, and necessary, level.