Africa to world: We can handle war justice ourselves

This week a group of earnest religious leaders from the rural reaches of northern Uganda - home to Africa's longest-running war - traveled 4,500 miles to the Netherlands. They made a passionate plea to the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, which went something like this: Stay out of our war. We can handle it ourselves. You'll only make it worse if you get involved.

Their plea is symbolic of a growing debate over the ICC's role in Africa - one that's fundamentally about balancing two vastly different systems of justice in order to boost peace on the continent: the Western, punitive sense of justice and the African, conciliatory one, famously symbolized by South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission pardoning many apartheid-era torturers and murders.

Also this week, Nigeria proposed that an African tribunal - not the ICC - address atrocities in Sudan's Darfur Province, where the US says genocide has occurred. In all, the effort to "strike a balance between the prosecutorial approach and restorative justice is coming to the fore," says Paul Nantulya of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town, South Africa.

The Nigerian proposal would establish a justice-and-reconciliation tribunal to deal with crimes in Darfur, where the UN now says 180,000 people have been killed since Feb. 2003. The panel would fit with recent efforts to develop African solutions to African problems - and might help break a deadlock in the UN Security Council over how to proceed on Darfur. It's between pro-ICC Europe and the Bush administration, which opposes the ICC because it fears US troops would be subject to frivolous claims.

The Ugandan leaders, meanwhile, argue that the ICC's promise to indict top commanders of the Lord's Resistance Army, the rebel group waging war with Uganda's government, will scare rebels from peace talks and prolong the 18-year conflict. If rebel leader Joseph Kony is indicted, "then he will use our people as human shields," says Sheikh Musa Khalil of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative in Gulu, Uganda, which sent representatives to The Hague. Furthermore, "Without forgiveness we cannot rebuild the community" after the war, he says.

Sheikh Khalil and others argue that traditional structures are sufficient for dealing with rebel atrocities, which include kidnapping about 20,000 children to make them soldiers or prostitutes, and brutalizing thousands of civilians. One ritual involves the wrongdoer stepping on an egg - to symbolize breaking open a new life - and being welcomed back to the community. Tougher ones include malefactors being expelled from their clans. In such community-oriented societies, this means "you virtually cease to exist as a human being," explains Mr. Nantulya.

Experts say the debate comes down to different worldviews. Western nations focus on the individual and, in the case of crimes committed, how that person will be punished. African societies are more group- oriented. A crime upsets the balance in the entire community. Confession and repayment - sometimes in the form of cattle or a new house - are appropriate. Once the balance is restored, all is forgiven.

But this is anathema to Western justice, says Geraldine Mattioli, an advocate at Human Rights Watch, which supports ICC indictments in Uganda. Little or no punishment creates "a real risk of diluting the deterrent effect," she says. Furthermore, she adds, despite Ugandan desires, "We have a great body of international law" - dating back to the 1940s Nuremberg trials - "that says those kinds of crimes will not be tolerated."

Ultimately, given current fragile peace efforts in Uganda, the ICC prosecutor must strike a balance, she argues. "Being indifferent to the peace process wouldn't be appropriate - yet he should be careful not to end up being taken hostage by a peace process that never ends," she says.

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