The politics of international justice

The politics of international justice

There are a couple of interesting–and potentially grim–items today on the international justice front. First, several Kenyan news outlets are reporting that the government is mounting a diplomatic campaign to encourage a broad African withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC):

Kenya is laying ground for a motion to be tabled at the African Union Summit in Ethiopia that could trigger withdrawal of African states from the Rome Statute that founded the International Criminal Court.

Sources in Government told The Standard, the plot to instigate the pullout from International Criminal Court is being driven by a shuttle diplomacy by some ministers within African capitals ahead of the January 30-31 AU meeting in Addis Ababa. This meeting is expected to set the agenda for the main Summit attended by African leaders in July.

Kenya’s parliament called for unilateral withdrawal last month after the ICC prosecutor identified six prominent Kenyans–including the deputy prime minister–for prosecution in connection with the 2008-2009 violence in that country. At a purely tactical level, engineering a multilateral African withdrawal is a smart political move; if the campaign is successful, Kenya can then spin its own retreat as part of a broad African rejection of the "neocolonial" court.

Meanwhile, Lebanon is still waiting for widely expected indictments from the UN tribunal tasked with investigating the murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. All manner of behind-the-scenes maneuvering is apparently underway to prepare for possible charges against senior Hezbollah officials. Syria and Hezbollah want Lebanese leaders to disavow the tribunal, which they argue is a tool of the United States and Israel. In an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, Michael Young of the Daily Star describes an almost paralyzed society:

There is tremendous malaise politically in Lebanon, because the situation surrounding the tribunal has effectively frozen all other aspects of political life. The cabinet is not meeting because Hezbollah and its allies refuse to attend cabinet sessions unless the cabinet takes certain measures that will lead to the discrediting of the tribunal. So, effectively, politics are frozen here, and as far as most Lebanese are concerned, this issue is not going anywhere. They feel their daily life is not getting any better. The economic situation is not particularly good. People believe their country is being ignored and is being held hostage to the tribunal.

In both cases, a key variable will be how much political capital the mainly Western supporters of these justice projects will expend defending them. Thus far, Western countries have made strong statements in defense of the Lebanon tribunal, and several, including France and the United States, have backed their words with new funds. The picture on the ICC is more complicated. While the Obama administration would oppose an African exodus from the ICC, its ability to exert meaningful pressure is limited by America’s status as a non-member. And it’s not clear how aggressively or effectively the European Union will lobby to prevent African states from withdrawing from the court.

The next few months could be very important ones for the entire international justice project.