Emerging Voices features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is from Nema Milaninia, a legal officer in the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The views expressed are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or the ICTY. This piece is part of an ongoing Development Channel series on global justice and development.
In 1994, the international community reacted to brutal crimes committed in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia by establishing tribunals mandated to bring those most responsible to justice. The thinking was that justice would help restore and maintain peace in those regions struggling to recover from divisive tragedies. But today, the relationship between justice, peace, and political stability faces serious scrutiny. How governments and international organizations choose to view that relationship has huge implications for how individuals responsible for mass atrocities will be held accountable.
The recent prosecution of Kenyan leaders in the International Criminal Court (ICC) sheds light on the tenuous balance between stability and justice. In October 2013, leaders of the African Union (AU) passed a resolution requesting that the ICC defer its trials against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto – both charged with organizing post-electoral violence in Kenya that resulted in the deaths of over 1,000 civilians and the displacement of another 250,000 or more people. The resolution argued that the ICC cases could “undermine [Kenya’s] sovereignty, stability, and peace.” In 2009, the AU passed a similar resolution concerning ICC proceedings against Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmad al Bashir, out of fear that his genocide case could “undermine the ongoing efforts aimed at facilitating the early resolution of the conflict in Darfur.” Both of these cases currently face serious obstacles: in Kenya, witnesses have withdrawn, likely due to bribery, pressure, and a climate of hostility. And al Bashir continues to evade extradition to The Hague.
Resistance to the ICC is not unique to Africa. Just last year, the Russian government stated that referring the ongoing conflict in Syria to the ICC would be “ill-timed and counterproductive” to peace efforts. Some argue that in conflict or post-conflict situations, the emphasis should be on ensuring security, encouraging economic development, rebuilding key institutions, and disarming belligerent groups. In this view, justice is placed in juxtaposition with peace, and other factors usually weigh against holding leaders accountable. For example, the perpetrators of an atrocity, or their chosen successors, often retain or come into power after a conflict ends. In other cases, both sides of the conflict commit abuses and there is a fear that the quest for justice might undermine reconciliation.
Increasingly, however, studies show that the justice or peace dichotomy is false. Instead of being at odds, there is an important and fundamental link between justice, stability, and economic development. In 2010, the International Institute on Higher Criminal Studies (IIHCS) published a survey of world conflicts that took place from 1945 to 2008. The study found that of the over 300 conflicts that took place during that period, nearly all were of a non-international or internal character and were largely concentrated in developing countries in Asia and Africa. The conflicts themselves were usually caused by poverty, exploitation, corruption, and other factors relating to economic, social, and political grievances. Furthermore, the survey found that those who promoted conflict in poor countries were often motivated by personal greed and were willing to surrender their states to the interests of foreign governments (such as in the Cold War) or foreign corporations. In the vast majority of cases, perpetrators of crimes escaped accountability. More often than not, justice was sacrificed for short-term political expediency.
However, as the IIHCS study revealed, stability, security, and democracy are actually strengthened by a post-conflict commitment to accountability. Openly facing past violence is essential to prevent future violence. It is for these reasons that Kenya’s key aid donors and senior Washington officials support the ICC process, viewing impunity for state corruption and political violence as a threat to Kenya’s long-term stability. There is also indication that international prosecutions helped prevent another outbreak of election-related violence when Kenyans voted for a new president in 2013.
Of course, balancing political and economic development with accountability will always be a case-by-case determination. Just as conflicts arise from distinct issues and involve different types of violence, post-conflict resolutions must also be context-specific. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to ensuring justice and stability following major conflicts. But there is at least strong indication and growing international consensus that justice and stability are collaborative and not mutually exclusive concepts. Despite this finding, international justice institutions like the ICC continue to suffer from budgetary restraints and limited state cooperation, particularly from the most powerful countries in the world. Without more resources and support, the prospect of realizing both justice and peace risks being reduced to an aspiration instead of a reality.