An African proverb states, “Peace is costly but it is worth the expense.” This week the International Criminal Court delivered its first guilty verdict in its nearly 10-year existence, with the conviction of the warlord Thomas Lubanga for the coercion of children as soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The court to date has spent around $1 billion. Justice has been done, but there is no peace in that country.
The court’s success as a vehicle for delivering justice continues to be debated. The I.C.C. was founded amid much fanfare, but its track record — with only this single conviction — has been poor. Arguably, the cases before it are complex, and it was always going to take time for a new institution to complete them.
But this misses the point. The I.C.C. was intended as an instrument for delivering peace. In this respect it has not been a success. It will continue to falter because its current methods go against the experience of many places in Africa and around the world where peace has been delivered through political negotiations and reconciliation efforts, not the imposition of international justice.
Over the past 20 years, countries divided by ethnicity and political turmoil, from South Africa to Liberia, from Sierra Leone to Rwanda, have been brought together through reconciliation. In my own experience, both as a peace envoy for the United Nations and the European Union to Guinea-Bissau, and as a peace-process negotiator in my native Northern Ireland, this was the case.
During the height of the Troubles in the 1970s and 1980s, the British government used the courts to prosecute its opponents in Northern Ireland. People with blood on their hands were portrayed as martyrs by their supporters. But through a peace process that was backed by the international community — not driven by it — two hostile communities were able to come together to share power in our common home. People on both sides have committed violence, yet we now sit in government together, determined to put the past behind us for the common good.
If the I.C.C. had been in existence during the Northern Ireland peace process, or in 1995, when South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission began its work, there would no doubt have been calls for it to intervene and prosecute those accused of violence. This would have driven old enemies even further apart in recrimination and hostility, hobbling the chance for peace.
I am not making an argument against I.C.C.’s existence: In places where there is no functioning government, or the government is hostage to one section of society, or where there is no viable reconciliation process, the international community has a duty to ensure that the court is the guardian of justice.
But the pursuit of justice should not replace or undermine ongoing national reconciliation efforts. The foremost challenge facing the I.C.C. is to determine whether its intervention will help or hinder the cause of peace. The wheels of justice must be allowed to turn at their own pace, but that they must not impede the peace process.
In Kenya, where one the court’s most high-profile cases is taking place, the I.C.C. has focused on bringing to trial those accused of inciting post-election violence in 2007-8. This risks fueling divisions in a country where tribal loyalties and factionalism still dominate politics. Kenya, often seen as a great African success story, is now heading toward a dangerous impasse. The court’s determination to bring to trial several defendants accused of fomenting violence has enabled Prime Minister Raila Odinga to call for the arrest of his main political opponent, Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the country’s founding president, who now faces I.C.C. charges.
Mr. Odinga and Mr. Kenyatta are both leaders in a coalition government that came together with the support of the international community precisely in order to reconcile Kenya’s opposing political and tribal groupings. Yet the I.C.C.’s intervention is increasingly likely to drive this government and the country further apart, allowing a political leader from one ethnic group to try to remove an opponent from another ethnic group from the scene. This is particularly perilous when the root of the post-election violence in Kenya is tribal conflict.
The I.C.C. must never be an instrument that can fuel the potential for division. And where the court intervenes it must be an exemplar of justice at its best, with standards that are above question. This has not always been the case: The Kenyan case rests on a main witness who has changed his statements several times, and is under a witness protection plan partly funded by the British government, which has publicly supported the trial. This has fueled the erroneous belief among some Kenyans that the Western powers that fund the court are seeking to divide and rule the country themselves.
Proponents of the I.C.C. say there cannot be peace without justice. Yet experience teaches us that this is not always the case. Reconciliation is not an easy option, but it does allow people to move forward with the hope of unity, and the potential for justice in the future. The experiences of Northern Ireland and South Africa show us that there is nothing more important than peace. If this means the International Criminal Court does not always intervene or deliver justice, it may be a price that is worth paying.
By Ian Paisley, the son of the Rev. Ian Paisley and a member of the British Parliament from Northern Ireland.