Earlier this year there was a viral video sent that attempted to raise a public storm against one of Africa’s more unpleasant political figures (and that’s saying something!), in a campaign entitled Kony 2012. Not coincidentally, the United States government sent in over a hundred troops to Uganda to help that nation’s government (which itself is involved in pretty unpleasant business, like most African governments) to fight against the even more wicked Lord’s Resistance Army. Even among those of us who share a horror at Joseph Kony’s activities with the LRA, we would do well to pay some attention to the slow enforcement of justice within the confines of International Law.
I have always been rather ambivalent about International Law. On the one hand, I believe in a universal standard of moral behavior that is applicable to all places and times and ought to be enforced, but on the other hand I deeply mistrust the international community to fairly and justly enforce any moral standard. In this situation, as in so many others, my idealistic moral sense and my rather cynical view of the corruption and immorality of the powers that be tend to be at cross-purposes. The reasons for my cynicism and skepticism are not difficult to understand–if we look at the workings of the International Court of Justice in the Hague, we see that the leaders they convict are generally “small fries” and that their trials drag on for a long time, leading to slow and very incomplete justice. Perhaps half or a quarter of a loaf is more satisfying than none at all, but it is not very satisfying on an absolute scale.
An example of the slow and incomplete workings of international justice is the recent conviction of former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, yesterday (April 26, 2012) on some crimes against humanity for his support of blood diamond-trafficking rebels from Sierra Leone who slaughtered tens of thousands of their citizens as he sought to destabilize his neighbor . He was cleared of having control over the rebel group, but convicted for aiding and abetting their war crimes. This victory (if not a complete one) has been hailed as significant in the increasing power and prestige of the international court. Nonetheless, let us put the matter in perspective. Liberia is not a mighty nation, and its presence as one of only two states to escape colonial rule during the late 1800’s (Ethiopia was the other one) was due to its presence as a relic of American efforts to recolonize freed black slaves back to Africa (it didn’t work very well–the Americanized blacks became rather dictatorial and lorded it over the natives, leading to a harshly unequal regime where 5% of the population ruled harshly over the other 95% for over a century ).
That aside, let us look at the achievement of the International Court of Justice’s Special Court for Sierra Leone in convicting Charles Taylor–it only took five years and (unlike some of the high-profile defendents, like former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic) the defendant lived long enough to be convicted and face his verdict. These are modest achievements, especially given that Charles Taylor left Liberia voluntarily (albeit under pressure) to Nigeria and was then extradited to the Hague for his trial. Obviously, before the International Court of Justice is to be a truly rigorous court there would have to be sufficiently powerful international regimes that exhibit a high degree of control over nations, but this sort of “one world government” is viewed at with considerable unfriendliness by many people, and would likely have to be put into place by force and coercion, making it just as oppressive as the oppressive governments it would be trying to replace and control.
This is a considerable difficulty. Those people who claim for international justice against rogue figures like Joseph Kony ought to understand what they are about. First, international justice at this stage is rather uncertain and episodic, since our international institutions are (thankfully) rather weak. Nations are (understandably) chary about giving up their sovereign power to international organizations, even if they are willing to participate in regional and global alliances and trade unions. For there to be an effective international justice system, there would need to be effective sovereignty for international institutions (like the EU or UN or others) over their constituent states, and many nations (for good reason) are not willing to give up this control.
It is all well and good when a nearly universally recognized bad guy like Charles Taylor or Joseph Kony is brought to justice, even if it takes a long time, but we must see that this is not the extent of any genuine international justice regime. Any system of international justice that would be strong enough to seize and extradite and try a rebel leader like Joseph Kony is going to be able to do the same for American soldiers accused of atrocities in foreign nations. We must remember that a call for international courts of justice is itself a violation of the sovereignty of the nations involved, a violation we would be deeply offended by were we in their place.
It is for this reason that the vast majority of those international courts that have sat have been of an ad hoc quality, like the Nuremburg Trials or those trials that have sought to prosecute war criminals (mostly in European trials) over the past few decades. Do we wish to weaken the power of nation-states and to foist a super-state on top of nations in a global ruling community, dominated by the world’s more powerful nations (who alone would have the force and economic strength necessary to enforce such an order), or do we wish to work more gradually and incompletely to build up those national institutions so that they are capable of justly and legitimately ruling over their own peoples to handle such problems themselves, at the risk of letting war criminals die in their beds during the long time that might be necessary to support and build up such institutions? There are no easy answers, but we at least ought to ask ourselves deeper questions than appears to be the case right now.