Thursday, February 13, 2014

ICC opens "war crimes" investigation in CAR while Assad enjoys impunity

A lot has been written about "double standards" and "selective justice" dispensed by the International Criminal Court at the Hague by "targeting" Africans for prosecution. But scathing criticism of the court seems to fall on deft ears as the first permanent, treaty based court continues to pursue cases in Africa while ignoring atrocities of international concern in other regions.

The Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) has reportedly opened a preliminary investigation into possible war crimes committed in the Central African Republic (CAR). The court will investigate "extreme brutality by various groups" in the African country, including "hundreds of killings, acts of rape and sexual slavery, destruction of property, pillaging, torture, forced displacement and recruitment and use of children in hostilities."

CAR has been in conflict for over a year after Muslim rebels seized power and allegedly orchestrated a series of brutal attacks on Christians -- prompting the creation of Christian militias and reprisals against Muslims. The situation has descended into ethnic cleansing and sectarian killings affecting all communities and tens of thousands of people have fled to neighboring Chad and Cameroon.

In my opinion, there's a need for investigation and prosecution of alleged horrific crimes committed in CAR, a country which signed and ratified the Rome Statute of the ICC on 7 December 1999 and 3 October 2001 respectively. [Source] Mindful of CAR's commitment under the Statute and its inability under the present state of affairs to bring perpetrators to book, the ICC has legal grounds to step in.

However, there's no denying that investigating crimes in CAR while turning a blind eye to heinous crimes elsewhere, including the use of chemical weapons in Syria points to "double standards" in the international criminal justice system. There are reports of gruesome crimes committed in Syria - even more gruesome than some crimes allegedly committed in CAR. Top UN officials, including Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon have explicitly said "many crimes against humanity" have been committed in Syria. But perpetrators enjoy impunity in the Syrian Arab Republic as there has been no investigation.

Although Syria has not ratified the Rome Statute, the situation there could be referred to the ICC by the UN Security Council acting under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations. Libya and Sudan (African countries) were not parties to the Rome Statute when situations there were referred to the ICC. The Security Council could do the same in the case of Syria. Failure to do so undermines the credibility of the international justice mechanism that has so far focused on bringing African perpetrators to book.

In my view, failure to investigate and prosecute alleged crimes of international concern in committed by the regime of Bashar al-Assad and rebel groups in Syria undermines the credibility of the international justice mechanism in general and the ICC in particular -- that has so far focused on bringing African perpetrators to book. As it stands, the court is perceived, and rightly so, as a political tool used by powerful nations in the controversial Security Council to keep political adversaries, predominantly in Africa, in check.

The ICC should be independent and the prosecutor should have the independent ability to initiate investigations proprio motu on the basis of reports of crimes within the jurisdiction of the court without waiting for politically motivated referrals by the UN Security Council -- referrals that would never be made in cases where the national interests of so-called super powers are at stake.

Failure to act in Syria is a lost opportunity for the ICC to show that it doesn't "target" Africans.

It is worthy to mention that despite its flaws, I oppose calls by some African Heads of state, governments, scholars and analysts for African states to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the ICC. Focus should be on reforming the court.

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