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From Idi Amin to Al-Bashir: A Critical Moment for International Criminal Justice

An estimated 300,000 to 500,000 people died under his brutal reign of terror. Justice was never served. 80,000 of the country's minority, named "bloodsuckers" by the tyrant, were expelled with 90 days to flee their property and possessions. Justice was never served. No, this is not al-Bashir's Sudan. This is Uganda, and at the helm of hell was military dictator and President Idi Amin, who died in exile on Saudi Arabian soil in 2003. Following his 8 years as ruler of Uganda in the 1970s, Idi Amin spent 24 years unpunished, living seaside in the Kingdom. The rivers of justice ran dry as the former President soaked up the sun for more than two decades.

Back then, a system of justice that was unrestrained by geographical borders was merely an armchair exercise in intellectual idealism. Today, that very system is now permanent, global, and on the front lines of the justice business, gradually giving a resounding voice to the victims of the world's gravest crimes. Much of the conversation surrounding international criminal justice focuses on the capacity, credibility, and complexity of the International Criminal Court (ICC). However, the system of international criminal justice depends on a much larger framework of international institutions, nation states, non-governmental organizations, regional courts, international law enforcement bodies, and new entities working toward the control of violence, the promotion of lasting security, and the manifestation of justice for the world's gravest crimes.

We simply cannot let this newly minted system of accountability slip through the cracks of politics as usual or skepticism and doubt. If we do, the moral stride of humanity will have taken one step back, rather than two steps forward. And while this new global system of justice cannot call Idi Amin to account for the litany of crimes he committed, including the expulsion of my mother and father from Uganda in 1972, the mere presence and pursuit of this international structure is touching the lives of many millions of people around the world affected by those engaged in truly heinous crimes.

The Consultative Conference on International Criminal Justice could not come at a more critical moment on the continuum of ending impunity and global cooperation in addressing mass atrocities. Convened by the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University and sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, members of the Steering Committee also include the International Criminal Court's Office of the Prosecutor, the Coalition for the International Criminal Court and the International Center for Transitional Justice. The 3-day conference hosted at the United Nations Headquarters September 9-11 is bringing together 150 high-level participants including the world's international justice experts, diplomats, scholars, jurists, and civil society actors to openly consult and better align strategies for the next three years. Landmark in nature, this is the first effort of its kind to strengthen the global system of international criminal justice.

Currently, there are four active investigations before the ICC, each with outstanding arrest warrants: Uganda; the Democratic Republic of Congo; Darfur, Sudan; and the Central African Republic. In addition, the Court also has several situations under analysis, including Colombia, Afghanistan, Georgia, Kenya and Cote d'Ivoire. Entrenched within these investigations, discussions and debates run the threads of local justice versus international justice, enforcement politics and State obligations, perceived biases towards the African continent, and last but not least, the complex relationship between the humanitarian community and the International Criminal Court.

With a number of outstanding arrest warrants and many more countries on the cusp of becoming active ICC investigations, the system of international criminal justice is at a crossroads and in need of stronger alignment amongst its actors. The time is now to understand and continue building a synergistic system that guides the agendas of many towards common goals.

At this defining moment, The Consultative Conference on International Criminal Justice aims to address these issues from the multitude of angles through which international criminal justice is perceived, strengthened, and dependent upon. Presenters include the Prosecutor, Registrar, and President of the International Criminal Court; Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda ('94-'96); Ambassadors of Mexico, Kenya and Tanzania to the United Nations; Commissioners of the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights; Executive Director of Human Rights Watch; President and CEO of Save the Children; President of the Supreme Court of Justice of Colombia; and the Democratic Republic of Congo's Minister of Justice, among many others.

Crediting Canada with saving their lives, my parents had faith that such forced resettlement from Uganda would ultimately bear its fruit one day. "This was a blessing in disguise," my father said, examining the last 37 years. Others were not so lucky.

Back then, we could rationalize injustice and inaction by the international community because we lacked a common framework, permanent global institutions, and other enabling tools to save the world's most vulnerable populations. Today, these ideas are being put into practice, testing the will of humanity to fight for justice. Let us not fail this test, for if we fail, this article will be reprinted with only a handful of words changed--the main one, of course, would be replacing the name of President Idi Amin with President Omar al-Bashir. With the Arab League in support of the Sudanese president, not even the exile haven of choice would change.

For more articles by Rahim Kanani, click here.

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