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We Are All Africa: The ICC and Selective Justice

On March 29, American University professor David Bosco wrote a piece in the Washington Post about the International Criminal Court (ICC) and their nearly exclusive focus on Africa as a place to pursue 25 charges of crimes against humanity. He concluded with a remarkable paragraph:

"Still fragile, the ICC has no desire to provoke Washington, Beijing, or Moscow. A full-blown confrontation with a major power could threaten the court in ways that tussles with Sudan and Kenya do not. It's not so much that the court is biased against Africa as that it is reluctant to meddle in cases in which the geopolitics are intense. But the result is the same: stricter justice for one part of the world."

Just take a moment to re-read that last comment and consider what happens when we see an organization with pretenses to universal jurisdiction applying standards of justice selectively based on geography and the need to avoid discomforting the great powers.

It pains me deeply that his has happened. Not that these men do not deserve justice but once again Africa is made to look like a problem one more time while we turn away from abuses elsewhere. I spent four and half years in Lesotho as country director for the Peace Corps and doing what I could about stopping apartheid. In my time, there was little or no movement by the USA or the West to correct that system. What I learned and needed to learn was that Africa in general and Lesotho in particular was that they are just like us with hearty shares of both smart and dumb. My secretary, Thembe Makepe, spoke more languages than any of us in Peace Corps. Lesotho, small and mountainous, was the home of a few geniuses and lots of fools, just like Washington, London, or Paris.

A peculiar and unintentional side effect of Bob Geldof's Live Aid was the idea that Africa was a set of problems not only that the West could solve but that only the West could solve. This idea has persisted and become internalized in assumptions about the entire region. While the targets of ICC warrants do indeed affirm that Africa has persistent problems, there is a peculiar absence of attention paid to other regions of the planet which have problems but also powerful interests able to resist or ignore ICC involvement.

But we don't hear enough of this: Africa is just like the West and needs to be treated as such. Yes, just like us when it comes to the crimes/justice that the ICC is tasked with. Justice demands a level playing field. Justice demands this because without justice before the bar we all become shadows. The powerless innocents of the world need a universal force to protect themselves against the powerful wicked. The USA and China can keep their human rights abuses hidden by not joining the ICC or they can muscle the United Nations into doing its bidding. Since this is the case, the ICC should be shut down if it cannot look out into the world and bring whoever needs to be brought to justice. If it doesn't have the courage to at least try convictions everywhere, then shouldn't we stop the game?

But the world does need protection from the wicked and the powerful. The human rights groups of the world try to protect the powerless from the craven, but an ICC that applies selective standards of justice makes it difficult to spread knowledge of human rights as universal values. The good folk created the ICC but the net for the criminals seems to only work for African leaders. Other instruments of justice like the ICTY have done good, as in Bosnia. But if the ICC ends up as more fuel for the myth of Africa as a problem for the West to solve while ignoring the considerable violations elsewhere, then it is not a universal standard of justice. The dream of the West must not create nightmares for all the rest. A level field for violators is not only preferable, it is imperative. If the world is serious about an international standard of justice for the most egregious crimes, it is time for the USA and Russia to ratify their signatures for the ICC and it is time for China, India, and others to sign and ratify the same. That would begin to even the playing field some for a universal standard of justice that we all deserve.

The world must stop pathologizing Africa. The region's problems are characterized as being worse because they're in Africa. If you believe in the principles of universal and procedural justice, please take time to see Africa for its normality. African problems are human problems and they deserve no more (nor less) focus than the problems anywhere, in Washington or Damascus or Tokyo or Tbilisi or Riyadh or Moscow. We all need justice and the power to stop the bullies wherever they live. Lots of them live on every continent. The next time you hear someone discussing "African problems," don't let it pass. Ask what is specifically African about the problem, and where else similar problems exist elsewhere. Demand universal standards of justice and human rights, not selective applications.

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