Africa’s challenge to universal justice

South Africa, Gambia, and Burundi plan to withdraw from the International Criminal Court. While disappointing, their move cannot end the steady progress to establish universal ideals and norms of justice.

AP Photo
Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda waits for the start of the court session where Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi, a Malian Islamic extremist who pleaded guilty to destruction of historic mausoleums in Timbuktu, was sentenced at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, Sept. 27.

Three countries in Africa, most notably South Africa, have signaled they plan to withdraw from the International Criminal Court. That tribunal, set up only in 2002 by the United Nations to prosecute perpetrators of genocide and other mass atrocities, has achieved only a handful of convictions. Yet most have been against Africans. Many leaders on the continent either resent this apparent bias or, more likely, fear being next for ICC prosecution.

If more countries withdraw from the court’s jurisdiction, human rights activists worry that its mission of bringing justice for victims of mass violence could be slowed. On a large scale, a weaker ICC might set back decades of progress in showing that universal ideals, such as international law, can transcend the narrow interests of tribes and nations.

In other words, if justice is a common desire of humanity, so must be its global application. The ICC’s role is to prosecute the worst of crimes whenever a country fails to do so within its borders.

While the court has 124 members, it is still a new experiment in bringing universal justice. From the start, it was less than universal by the refusal of China, Russia, and the United States to join it for various reasons. And while the court has lately started to probe atrocities in the Middle East, Ukraine, and elsewhere, the extent of violence in Africa has allowed it to focus more easily on the worst despots in that region. Its chief prosecutor is an African, which further argues against the court being biased.

The ICC faces similar headwinds as does another recent UN invention: the idea that countries can be given permission to militarily intervene across borders to prevent mass killings. Known as “the responsibility to protect,” this principle endorsed in 2005 has been abused as much as it has been used to save lives, such in Libya in 2011. Yet such efforts represent humanity’s interest since World War II and the Holocaust to establish norms based on ideals such as human rights and democratic liberty.

The setback for the ICC should be seen in its larger context of the steady if fitful progress in persuading most of the world that certain ideals, such as justice, are indeed universal and can further the recent reduction in war violence. Many other efforts, such as treaties against weapons of mass destruction, are working well in setting higher norms. The world is also more tightly bound by economic concerns, which helps drive global rules to prevent violence.

The ICC was created in hopes of avoiding the kind of ad hoc courts set up to deal with mass violence, such as in the former Yugoslavia. Such a need still exists. A noble purpose like universal justice, once let loose, is difficult to end. At its creation, Kofi Annan, an African and at the time the UN secretary-general, described the ICC as a “giant step forward in the march towards universal human rights and the rule of law.” The withdrawal of few nations cannot stop that march.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Africa’s challenge to universal justice
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today