Friday, July 03, 2009

Some thoughts on impunity and Africa

Flying home to Paris from a reporting trip to Haiti and a brief visit to the United States earlier this week, I read former United Nations’ secretary general Kofi Annan’s eloquent and impassioned op-ed concerning the subject of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and Africa in the International Herald Tribune.

In his article, Annan, notes that the ICC now has 108 signatory states, including 30 African countries, representing the largest regional bloc among member states. Beyond that, five of the court’s 18 judges are African and, in Annan’s word, “the ICC reflects the demand of people everywhere for a court that can punish these serious crimes and deter others from committing them.”

One cannot read Annan’s words, of course, without thinking of the ICC’s indictment of Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, which calls for al-Bashir’s arrest on five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes for his actions connected to the conflict in the Sudanese region of Darfur, a crisis which the United Nations itself estimates has killed at least 200,000 people. The indictment against al-Bashir, a sitting head of state, uses quite similar language to charges laid out against Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo, two of the militia leaders in the Ituri conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the early part of this decade. Nevertheless, opposition and criticism of al-Bashir’s indictment has become something of a cause célèbre among some in progressive circles, as well in the halls of power in Africa itself, who charge (without acknowledging such bodies as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia) that the African leader is being unfairly singled out. Since the indictment, al-Bashir, far from being treated as a pariah, has been fêted at capital’s across the continent.

“We have little hope of preventing the worst crimes known to mankind, or reassuring those who live in fear of their recurrence,” Annan writes in his article, “if African leaders stop supporting justice for the most heinous crimes just because one of their own stands accused.”

Reading Annan’s Op-Ed, I was reminded of a recent review I wrote of Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani’s book Saviors and Survivors : Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror, in which Mamdani argued, among other things, that none of the charges laid against al-Bashir by the ICC “can bear historical scrutiny.”

Leaving aside the question of the veracity of such a statement for a moment, the experience I had in attempting to get the review published I found instructive in terms of the way that ideology can often blind even those in the news business to the real suffering of people on the ground in a place such as Darfur, which along with the Democratic Republic of Congo (which I have reported on) and Somalia is the site of perhaps the world’s worst humanitarian crisis at present.

I pitched the idea for the review and received approval to write it from Inter Press Service editor Terna Gyuse, who has served as Africa regional editor for IPS since the departure of the rigorous and excellent Jacklynne Hobbs in 2008, a period since when, in my view, the quality and objectivity of the African reportage from the organization has slackened noticeably. After reading the book carefully, checking its footnotes and writing a highly critical review based on what I found to be Mamdani’s ideological polemicism and bad history (as typified by his absurd characterization of the charges against al-Bashir), I submitted the review to Gyuse, who took three weeks before finally rousing himself to a response. Opting to kill the review, ostensibly because of its length, Gyuse then ran in its place an interview with Mamdani, of roughly equal length, during which the latter holds forth at length in a manner that evidently matches up more squarely with Gyuse’s own ideological prejudices and desire to pander to the global intellectual establishment. The review I wrote was eventually published on the website of the AlterPresse news service and then republished on the site for the Social Science Research Council.

One cannot blame the reporter, of course, who is just doing her job by interviewing newsworthy people, or even less Mamdani, who has every right and indeed responsibility to see that his views get a wide hearing, no matter how wrong-headed I may feel them to be. But one can blame the editorial process at IPS, an organization that promotes itself as as “civil society's leading news agency,” but which seems more and more determined to silence independent, critical voices if they do not conform to what appears to me to be the organization’s increasingly ideological slant, one which seeks to avoid confrontation with elements of the the establishment left that help fund its existence at every turn.

It is really necessary to rock the boat, even among one’s own colleges, at certain times to keep them and the process honest and make sure that justice, like journalism, serves those in the greatest need of defending. Though I have often differed with Mr. Annan’s policies in places such as Rwanda, I was encouraged and hearted by his article and hope that media outlets such as the Inter Press Service will give space to similarly well thought out critiques that challenge ideological orthodoxy no matter where it occurs. Those in whose name they claim to speak deserve no less.


Addendum, as if to drive my point home:

AU to shelter Beshir from war crimes warrant: delegates

3 July 2009

SIRTE, Libya (AFP) – The African Union has decided not to cooperate with a war crimes warrant against Sudan President Omar al-Beshir and again appealed to the United Nations to delay the case, delegates said Friday.

Two delegates from different countries said the African Union summit had agreed to a text reading: "The AU member states shall not cooperate... for the arrest and surrender of Sudan President Omar al-Beshir."

The summit was expected later Friday to formally announce its decision, which effectively allows Beshir to travel across Africa without fear of arrest under the warrant for war crimes and crimes against humanity issued by the International Criminal Court.

The text was backed by Libyan leader and current AU chief Moamer Kadhafi, who has said the ICC represents a "new world terrorism," and won support from many countries who felt the court was unfairly targeting Africans.

Thirty African states have signed the Rome statutes creating the court, and have treaty obligations to arrest Beshir if he travels on their territory.

But the text adopted at the summit voices frustration felt by many African nations who say the UN Security Council ignored an early AU resolution calling for a one-year delay to the indictment.

The UN Security Council can ask the court, via a resolution, to suspend investigations or prosecutions for 12 months, under Article 16 of the Rome Statute. The stay can be renewed.


Susan Morgan said...

Thank you, Michael. I too have been very disheartened by the media's recent coverage of the Darfur genocide. Journalists (with several notable exceptions) and/or their editors seem to take their lead from comments made by GoS officials and "experts" like Mamdani or Alex de Waal, all of whom have their own agendas that are at odds with the facts and the plight of the millions of Darfuris living in inhumane conditions in refugee camps.

Michael Deibert said...

Thank you for your comments, Susan.

For my own part, I actually found De Waal's and Julie Flint's Darfur: A Short History of a Long War immensely helpful in my own understanding of the conflict there. And I would say that my critique of Mr. Mamdani's work is in the context of what I believe is symptomatic of a larger problem in academia, where actual on-the-ground knowledge and experience of a region is viewed as a needless distraction from the ideologically-driven score-settling at hand.

For another variation on this, please see my review of the academic Peter Hallward's 2007 book on Haiti, Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment, the review for which can be read in full here: