Welcome to Amnesty’s black-and-white world

The human rights group has a naive faith in ‘international justice’ and a simplistic view of high-profile conflicts.

Tara McCormack

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In its annual report released at the end of May, Amnesty International argued that – a few problems aside – we have entered a new era of global justice and universal accountability for human rights violations over the past 20 years. It praises, for example, the new institutions of ‘international justice’. But Amnesty is wrong to be so enthusiastic about the International Criminal Court (ICC), failing to recognise that it is more a tool of powerful states than ‘global justice’.

In his foreword to the report, Amnesty’s interim secretary general Claudio Cordone argues that politicians and military leaders the world over can no longer evade accountability for crimes against humanity. For Cordone, two of the most significant milestones in the development of this new system of accountability are the setting up of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 1998 and the ICC’s decision to issue an arrest warrant for President Omar Al Bashir of Sudan in 2009 on five counts of crimes against humanity (murder, extermination, forcible transfer of population, torture and rape) and two counts of war crimes (for the targeting of civilians). Amnesty also praises ICC investigations that have been opened in Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic, and preliminary examinations of the Russia-Georgia conflict and the bombardment of Gaza by Israel in 2008-09.

However, Cordone argues that there are two related barriers that stand in the way of this global legal system. The first is that powerful states can simply stand above the law. For example, India, China, Russia, Indonesia, Turkey and America have all refused to ratify the Rome Statute that established the ICC. Powerful and wealthy states such as China, Russia and Indonesia hide their actions from international observation and work to undermine international scrutiny of their actions. Secondly, Cordone argues that international justice remains politicised because the allies of powerful states will be protected. For example, he argues that the EU, America and Russia work to shield Israel from full accountability for its actions in Gaza. However, Cordone argues that things can be improved in order to make all politicians genuinely accountable.

On the surface, Amnesty presents an appealing argument. Who could be against universal human rights and justice for all? However, Amnesty’s assessment is wrong. The establishment of ICC investigations and warrants for the arrest of sitting heads of state such as Al Bashir of Sudan will not promote universal human rights, justice and peace. In fact, what this kind of external intervention achieves is to present what are complex conflicts in simplistic moralistic tones and ultimately actually serves to entrench divisions and increase the toll of human misery.

Darfur: a case study in misplaced moralism

The war in the Darfur region of Sudan has been a cause célèbre for several years. As a recent journalistic account of the Sudanese war dubbed it, Darfur has been everyone’s favourite African war. The conflict has been portrayed in stark terms of good and evil, in which the Sudanese Government has been presented as an evil Arab regime that has been intent on perpetrating a genocide against the ‘good’ black African citizens of Darfur. For example, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the prosecutor for the ICC, has explicitly compared Sudan to Nazi Germany and the ongoing civil war there to the Holocaust. The conflict has attracted very high profile activists: actor George Clooney has pleaded in the UN for action for Darfur whilst actress Mia Farrow has gone on hunger strike.

Yet as Rob Crilly’s interesting account of his time in Sudan reveals, whilst this kind of portrayal may give people like Clooney and Farrow the thrill of righteous indignation, it does not reflect the reality of a complicated and long-running conflict. As Mahmood Mamdani, professor of government at Columbia University, has argued in the London Review of Books, Darfur is generally understood as a place without context or politics. The conflict in Darfur is a complex one about land, resources and political power which entails shifting political allegiances: ‘Arabs’ fight with the ‘black Africans’ against the government while ‘black Africans’ fight with the government. The categorisation of different people as ‘Arab’ or ‘black African’ is without much meaning.

Moreover, far from leading to the resolution of the conflict, peace or justice, the issue of the arrest warrant for Al Bashir has served to exacerbate the conflict. As Philip Hammond has written about on spiked previously, the criminalisation of the government has effectively stalled ongoing peace negotiations with rebel groups. Through the process of issuing the arrest warrant, the international community has deliberately delegitimised the government and removed any onus on other groups either to engage in power-sharing arrangements with the government or to negotiate. This simply serves to let the conflict drag on and lessens the chance of the one thing that can really achieve peace: political negotiation and compromise.

Let us be clear – reducing conflicts to a simple tale of good and evil in which there is an easy solution – intervention by the West – does nothing for the people actually embroiled in those conflicts. Far from being a force for good, high-profile interventions through the auspices of the ICC can serve to ultimately increase conflict and lengthen war.

Whose justice is it anyway?

Amnesty displays a touching naivety in its worries about the politicisation of ‘international justice’ with the implication that were these problems to be removed, the project of universal accountability for all could be pursued fully. The problem is that these are not wrinkles to be ironed out, but are absolutely inherent in the post-Cold War humanitarian project, the establishment of the ICC, and the previous ad-hoc criminal tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda. These institutions were established by the West and, crucially, for the West. As the late Robin Cook, then UK foreign secretary, assured the British government at the time when the ICC was being established, ‘this is not a court set up to bring to book prime ministers of the United Kingdom or presidents of the United States’.

The ICC and the other ad-hoc tribunals should not be understood as old-fashioned tools of imperialism, however. Rather, since the end of the Cold War, high-profile interventions for the sake of the human rights of others and the establishment of various criminal tribunals have been used by Western nations not to pursue material interests but in an attempt to gain some moral authority at home and abroad. Yet these essentially self-interested actions have been made less transparent through being dressed up in the language of human rights and universal justice, language which disguises the reality of the situation: the strongest states imposing their solutions on the weakest.

These new institutions that purport to dispense universal justice and accountability are not only one-sided: they are also profoundly disempowering and anti-democratic. When we talk about making politicians ‘accountable’, we usually mean to the people within their own country. But that is not what the ICC does, because the court is in no way accountable to the people of Sudan, the DRC or Gaza.

Domestic law is generally understood to be legitimate because it derives from the will of the citizens to whom it applies. International tribunals, on the other hand, derive their power from the will of powerful states, which is applied to those who have no control over the process and no relationship to the institutions. The peoples of these countries are simply on the receiving end of diktats written in The Hague, London or Washington. The ICC actually disempowers the citizens of Sudan, for example, by intervening directly in the political process of the state and taking it out of the hands of the country’s citizens. However bad a state is, there is at least a possibility that the citizens of that state can gain power or change the political system; those people have absolutely no hope of influencing international institutions, like the ICC, run by powerful states.

In the absence of some kind of democratic world government, all arguments about universal accountability are simply fantasies that should be ignored by anyone who is interested in progressive politics.

These issues have particular purchase in the light of recent Israeli actions. In the coming weeks and month, we can expect to see increased calls for Israeli politicians to be arrested, held accountable by the ICC and so on. Whatever one thinks about Israeli actions now or in the past, no one should have any illusions in these international institutions. There is not a shred of progressive potential in bringing conflicts in the Middle East under the auspices of contemporary international justice.

Tara McCormack is a lecturer in international politics at the University of Leicester. She is author of Critique, Security and Power: The Political Limits to Critical and Emancipatory Approaches to Security, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Tara McCormack showed how America seeks moral authority abroad and revealed Britain’s Britain’s national insecurity strategy. Philip Hammond looked at why Darfur is every celeb’s favourite war and how ethical foreign policy springs from political isolation. Or read more at spiked issue Africa.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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