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Justice vs. Dignity in Uganda

On a sunny Sunday on the outskirts of Uganda's emerald-green capital recently the country's president, Yoweri Museveni -- 72 and running for a 4th term next year -- and the United Nations Secretary General, Ban ki-Moon, squared off in a promotional soccer match.

The match was put together to kick off the start of the first-ever review conference for the International Criminal Court (ICC), which was meeting in Kampala to take stock of accomplishments and hash out ideas for what to do next. Delegates from over a hundred countries had descended on the east African country, with business cards and motorcades.

The match was also held to honor the victims of the savage Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), whose leader Joseph Kony is wanted by the ICC, and has escaped capture for over twenty years.
The LRA doesn't really have values. They kill, and they move on. The most that has been discerned of the group's political ambitions is that Mr. Kony is theocratic and pours holy water on himself before battle. By now Mr. Kony may believe its working.

The victims, young and old performed dance routines for a sprinkling of guests -- there was more hoopla than fans - and lined up on the field to be given medals before they joined teams and played against each other. The teams were Dignity and Justice.

That was two and a half weeks ago. The ICC wrapped up its review conference last Friday with the clearing of tables and clanking of glasses in the kitchen sink at the luxurious lakeside Munyoyo Speke Hotel. The Sunday soccer match was the most action Ban ki-Moon got in Uganda. It is not to be unexpected. Though its not a signatory, the United States sent delegates to the conference in Kampala some say strictly to prevent a resolution on adding 'aggression' to the ICC's repertoire. China and Russia are the other permanent members of the Security Council that have not yet signed the Rome Statute.

In fact, with now roughly 111 ratified members and all the pomp to go with it, the ICC and general international criminal justice may be as much of a show as the soccer match. Behind mostly-empty stands and between a lot of handshakes, President Museveni and Ban ki-Moon played about 10 minutes of football, back-slapping and showing off. The Dignity Team, led by President Museveni beat the UN leader's Justice Team, 1-0.

Flying into Kampala just before the soccer match in honor of the ICC conference, the Secretary General said that "the old era of impunity was over," and that for perpetrators of war crimes, there was "no safe place to hide." Instead - from Kenya where politicians pick kickbacks like candy, to the Congo where government soldiers rape and loot with pleasure, to the very ground beneath the turf at Nelson Mandela stadium in Kampala, where many believe President Museveni has hatched plans to keep the war in the north going - the era of impunity seems to be going strong.

Those who have managed to be nipped by the ICC happen to all be African, giving the courts a bad name. Even worse, one of them -- Congolese rebel Bosco Ntaganda -- is indicted for crimes against humanity but remains a top commander for UN-backed military operations that have sowed regional instability. Or Kony, who has run through four countries chopping as he goes.

Just as big of a problem to justice's long-term importance is that the world's most powerful countries are not signatories and its difficult for their own crimes to face justice. Until the court considers investigating crimes committed by western leaders, the courts street-cred will remain low.

The best thing the ICC could have come up with at this review conference was an agreed-upon definition for crimes of 'aggression' and a protocol for how to prosecute it. Doing so could greatly widen the scope of crimes punishable by the ICC and act as a major deterrent to otherwise all-too-common military operations and coercive diplomacy. This month's Israeli blockade of aid to Gaza could count.

Until the last waning hours of the conference Friday night, that had not been done. But by sunset some delegates announced that a deal had finally been hashed out. The only problem is that the crime won't take effect for another seven years, and it will be the UN's Security Council and only sometimes member states that will hold power of when and on whom to prosecute crimes.One delegate called it "unjustifiable," and "automatic impunity" for non-state parties.

So for now at least, the world more or less stays the way it is.

Dignity 1, Justice 0.