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Is international justice finally finding its footing?

A prison sentence for a Congolese warlord. A court ruling for a Chadian dictator to be tried for torture. Some 67 years after Nuremberg trials, international courts and tribunals are making their mark.

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Then there are the cases that the court is not investigating. If you’re a protectorate or client state of a Security Council member, chances are that the ICC prosecutor isn’t going to be jumping out of his or her chair to open a full-blown criminal investigation. Why Libya and not Bashar al-Assad and Syria’s bloody maelstrom? Ask Moscow. Why Cote d’Ivoire but not Mahinda Rajapaksa and the brutal ending to Sri Lanka’s civil war? Ask Beijing. Why Kenya but not the violent suppression of protests in Yemen or Bahrain by those governments? Ask Washington.

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To be fair, it’s worth noting that central to the ICC’s mandate is a concept called "complementarity." That’s the idea that the ICC is the court of last resort, that nations should get first dibs on prosecuting their own war crime suspects. If they don’t, or can’t, the suspects should be extradited to a country that can.

That’s why the ICJ’s ruling on Hissène Habré is heartening. It’s an open question whether Senegal will be able to run a credible trial, but they’ve pledged they will. If it does happen, it would be the first time that a dictator accused of crimes in one country is tried in another country’s courts. The ICJ ruling also reinforces a landmark human rights treaty — the 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment — and the idea that treaties, once signed, can’t be ignored for political expediency.

But political expediency remains the order of the day, particularly for the Security Council’s Obstinate Three, and most notably, for the United States. When it works for Washington, international justice dispensed impartially is a cause to be embraced. When it doesn’t fit with the goals of American exceptionalism, it should be ignored, if not undermined. Political expediency yields selective justice. 

Charles Taylor and Ratko Mladic

There’s cause for optimism no doubt, particularly if you look at other cases from the past year: the conviction of former Liberian leader Charles Taylor by a special “internationalized” court for Sierra Leone; the ongoing trial of Ratko Mladic, the alleged mastermind of the Srebrenica massacre, at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

But whether the lessons of these trials will be absorbed by would-be murderous dictators — that impunity for crimes of atrocities is a notion from the past— will depend on the expectation that all nations large and small, rich and poor, should be equal under the law and that credible justice is as important as justice itself.

The arc of the moral universe does not bend toward selective justice.

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