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The ICC: An Irresponsible, Counterproductive Court

July 24, 2008

Last week the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an indictment against Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir. The ICC tries genocides, war crimes, and “crimes against humanity”, and the chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo apparently thinks that the Sudanese government’s recent behaviour in the western region of Darfur qualifies on all three counts.

The conflict in Darfur is sometimes described as a straightforward case of an Arab government killing and displacing vulnerable black Africans. In reality, a number of different militias and tribal groups are involved in the fighting, and the atrocities have hardly been one-sided. It’s to the credit of the ICC, then, that the indictment takes some of this complexity into account. Al-Bashir is accused quite specifically of trying to “destroy in substantial part the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa groups”, members of which had “engaged in a rebellion”. The charges relate to a vengeful, brutal response to internal opposition, not to an unprovoked genocide.

What makes this interesting from a Canadian viewpoint is that the ICC is actually in no small measure a Canadian project. The diplomacy of Jean Chretien’s government helped ensure the passage of the Rome Statute, the court’s founding document, and the current president of the court is the Canadian lawyer Philippe Kirsch. Whatever comes of the ICC’s intervention in Sudan, Canada will bear a measure of ultimate responsibility.

It’s easy to understand the humanitarian impulse to protect Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa civilians from al-Bashir’s militias. Nevertheless, Sudan is not even a signatory to the Rome Statute, so the ICC is empowered to go after al-Bashir only because the UN “referred” the Darfur situation to the court. It’s hard to imagine a clearer violation of Sudan’s sovereignty, and every step in this direction helps to set a precedent that could eventually backfire badly on Canada and the court’s other western backers. I would prefer that the wording of any future referendum on the status of Quebec not be decided by lawyers in The Hague.

A more immediate problem is that the indictment has already been contemptuously rebuffed by Sudan, prompting a declaration of solidarity from the Arab League. By forcing Sudan into a position of defiance, backed by regional allies, the indictment will only make it harder to negotiate a sensible end to the Darfur violence. If this a good example of the ICC in action, Canada should think twice before launching more utopian geopolitical schemes.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. canworldjon permalink*
    July 27, 2008 4:31 pm

    Great discussion guys, was hoping to post a defence of the ICC tonight or tomorrow, but it ain’t easy; it’s going to be lukewarm at best, if it is a defence at all.

  2. corsullivan permalink*
    July 25, 2008 8:12 pm

    Renee — The heading of this post resulted almost entirely from the fact that I couldn’t resist having a bit of fun with the acronym ICC. Quick responses to your responses:

    1. The problems with the ICC, in my opinion, have more to do with the institution itself than with the people in charge. Moreno-Ocampo’s judgement may or may not be clouded by his high profile, but I think it’s actually a bit dangerous that he’s able to make his judgements independently of sovereign governments and normal, realpolitikal considerations of geopolitical stability in the first place. The court’s very independence makes it a bit of a loose cannon on the international scene.

    2. “A Problem from Hell” is one of those books that I’ve picked up and looked at quite often in stores but never actually got around to purchasing and reading. The whole topic of genocide is so fraught that it’s often hard to have a sensible discussion. I do think the currently accepted definition of trying to destroy an ethnic group “in whole or in part” is perhaps a bit broad. Cold-blooded as it sounds, it does seem to me that getting angry with Ethnic Group X and wanting to kill a lot of them is qualitatively different from deciding to try to wipe them entirely from the face of history.

    3. No, I’ve never seen “Darfur Now”. [Sigh of mock frustration.] You seem to have a remarkable talent for highlighting my points of ignorance by mentioning articles and books I haven’t read, and now a film I haven’t seen!

    However, and with reference to your latest post, I HAVE read “The Calcutta Chromosome”. As I recall, it’s a thought-provoking novel with loads of historical detail, an interesting scientific angle, and a generous touch of the occult and supernatural. Really a most impressive book. Enjoy your vacation! –Corwin

  3. reneethewriter permalink
    July 25, 2008 6:01 am

    Cor, i like the way your headers pull no punches. I’ve long been intrigued/mystiefied/dismayed/impressed by the workings of the ICC – so a few questions as i head off on vacation…
    i’ll check back in August…

    1. Luis Moreno-Ocampo: as a chief prosecutor his cv is surely impressive. But some critics view his “celebrity status” as a judgment clouder – thoughts?

    2. Several summers ago my husband dropped a huge tome on the table and proceeded to read Pulizter prize winner Samantha Power’s “A Problem in Hell” – i have only read this in fits and starts – would welcome any comments on Powers and your thoughts as posted above

    3. Have you seen the documentary, Darfur Now (Ted Braun, director) and if so, thoughts?

    I am seriously under-informed on Darfur and have found i lack the moral courage and intellectual fortitude to get with it…prehaps this is not an option any longer…R

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