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The International Criminal Court (ICC) has generated considerable controversy since it came into force in 2002, principally because of its overriding focus on African conflict situations and suspects. This has led to accusations that the ICC is a neocolonial meddler in African affairs, wielding undue and unaccountable influence over the domestic political arena. Drawing on the author’s field research in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo since 2006 this article contends that the neocolonialism critique of the ICC exaggerates the power of the Court while underestimating the capacity of African states to use the ICC to their own ends. Delivering distanced justice from The Hague with limited expertise on African societies and spending scant time in the field, the ICC has failed to grapple sufficiently with complex political dynamics “on the ground.” Combined with the Court’s heavy reliance on state cooperation, these factors have enabled African governments to use the ICC to target their political and military enemies while protecting themselves from prosecution. This has also emboldened African states in continuing to commit atrocity crimes against civilians, especially during periods of mass conflict and fraught national elections. While claiming to hover above the political fray, the ICC has become heavily politicized and instrumentalized by African states, with lasting and damaging consequences for the practice of national politics across Africa. To avoid being willfully used by African governments, the ICC must bolster its political expertise and become politically savvier. Rather than claiming to be neutral while hovering above the domestic terrain, the ICC must embrace its inherently political nature and deliver justice in a way that improves rather than undermines the practice of national and community-level politics across Africa.

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The civil war was a turning point in the life of the faith community in Sierra Leone, which previously had been politically complacent. With the establishment of the Inter-Religious Council (IRC), Christian and Muslim religious leaders joined together with a unified voice based on shared values to first, mediate the conflict and second, promote reconciliation through the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The efficacy of faith-based initiatives is attributed to many factors: the vast numbers of religious adherents, a far-reaching infrastructure of churches and mosques, close partnerships with international organizations, untainted reputation of clerics, and sacred texts that promote peace. Reconciliation is a dominant theme in both Christianity and Islam, giving religious leaders a powerful tool in bringing warring sides who share these faith commitments to the peace table, and, also, postconflict in encouraging restorative mechanisms, such as truth commissions that aim at reconciliation among enemies, over more retributive ones, such as courts. Like the earlier South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (SATRC), which was headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Sierra Leone TRC was headed by a religious leader, Bishop Joseph Humper, then president of the Inter-Religious Council. Like the SATRC, it turned to religious notions of confession and redemption that resonated in a very religious society, where 60% of the population are Muslims and 30% are Christians. It was only partially successful, however, because of the existence of the Special Court for Sierra Leone operating contemporaneously, which was based on a punitive model of justice. Because of confusion about the two institutions’ different mandates, and fear of being prosecuted by the Court, even low-level perpetrators hesitated to testify at the TRC, limiting its ability to reconcile enemies. Unfortunately, the international community prioritizes justice over reconciliation, and is less supportive of restorative approaches that may resonate more deeply with religious people in postconflict societies.