"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


it's hard out here for a transitional justice expert

Normally, I can't stand journalists who go to Ituri for a week and purport to write a definitive newspaper article on the situation there. These articles tend to be thin, one-sided, misinterpretations of an extraordinarily complex situation. Adam Hochschild's piece on a recent trip to Bunia is different than most for two reasons: 1) Hochschild, author of King Leopold's Ghost, has an excellent understanding of Congolese history and the complexity of its society, politics, and culture, and 2) he had the good sense to go with Anneke van Woudenberg, Human Rights Watch's Congo specialist.

The resulting piece, on local reactions to the ICC's prosecution of warlord Thomas Lubanga, is a brilliant observation on the problems of transitional justice. He attends a meeting with former child soldiers hosted by the ICC's outreach guy for Bunia, who doesn't speak Kiswahili and who uses materials in French. (The average eastern Congolese ex-combatant doesn't speak much French or Lingala.) Despite his best efforts to explain the ICC's processes, it's clear the former child soldiers (and, apparently, some hangers-on who wanted the refreshments provided) aren't satisfied:
Why is Lubanga on trial, one asks, when “others who did the same thing are working within the government?” And indeed this is true, for in a series of half-effective peace accords, many former warlords have been absorbed into the corrupt and inept Congolese national army.

“Lubanga did not conscript forcibly,” another boy says. “We went voluntarily. I myself went voluntarily. It was to defend my community. Why is he being judged for this?” A comrade adds: “I also was not forced to enter [Lubanga’s army]. All our houses were burned. We had nowhere to go—and Lubanga accepted me.”
The latter is a key point that is often ignored by international observers: many Congolese join armed groups (particularly the Mai Mai organizations) in order to defend their homes, villages, or co-ethnics. They are not necessarily fighting for control of gold mines or to take territory. They want to defend their homes. Or they have no other choice. Can most of us honestly say we wouldn't do the same?

Hochschild continues:
I encounter more frustration with the Lubanga trial from others I talk to during a week in Ituri. “The ICC has taken the small fish,” says one critic, Abbé Alfred Buju, who is in charge of peace and social-justice issues for the Catholic Diocese of Bunia, “leaving the big fish because they’re in positions of power.” The big fish would include generals and cabinet ministers from Uganda and Rwanda whose support of the militias here did much to prolong and intensify the fighting, while their countries helped themselves to Ituri gold. (Rwanda supplied Lubanga with mortars, machine guns, ammunition, and trainers; Uganda, at different times, supported him and his opponents.) But both regimes are big favorites of the United States, and in choosing whom to indict, in Congo and elsewhere, the ICC has trod carefully to avoid antagonizing the U.S.
The Congolese are not stupid or naive. Iturians know that "justice" - especially the kind of justice that is dreamed up thousands of miles away - can be just another political tool.

Then there are the disparities between north and south:
...when Kuyaku explains some of the features that to Western eyes seem hallmarks of a humane and enlightened judiciary—such as the court’s provision of funds for Lubanga’s lawyers and for visits by his wife and family—these things surely appear even more extravagant. Africans are so desperate to migrate to Europe that thousands have drowned at sea trying, yet an accused war criminal’s wife and kids get a free trip? What’s more, all three judges who are deciding Lubanga’s fate, from Britain, Bolivia, and Costa Rica, are white. The trial is “justice à l’occidentale,” one of the local officials says, shaking his head at the screen.
As Hochschild points out, the problem with the ICC (and most models of war crimes prosecution) is that it's a way to symbolically prosecute only some of those responsible for war crimes. The ICC can't possibly try every person who committed a war crime in the DRC in the last 15 years. It's also a very Western system of justice. As the author notes, "No international court can ever substitute for a working national justice system. Or for a society at peace."

One quibble: Hochschild fails to mention the fact that the ICC prosecutor's office has bungled the case against Lubanga, and that he is very likely to get off on a technicality. If and when that happens, you can be sure that the Iturians' faith in the international justice system will be further weakened.


Anonymous Geoff said...

Laura -- I thought the Hochschild piece was terrific as well. But the main point of it was that the imperfect justice of the ICC may well contribute to peace in DR Congo by producing a deterrent effect for militia leaders. I thought it was an curious spin on the old peace v. justice debate.

Friday, December 04, 2009 8:42:00 AM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

I would disagree that that was the main point, although of course he made it at the end. The real focus seemed to be on the fact that transitional justice is messy, particularly in that it will never satisfy everyone.

Anyway, I really appreciate a nuanced piece on Congo that doesn't reduce it to a "this is a war for minerals, end of story" framework.

Friday, December 04, 2009 10:09:00 AM

Anonymous Geoff said...

I agree, nuance is good. But I think it *was* the main point, given where he begins in reference to the 'Pinochet Effect'.

Despite its inconsistency and messiness, the ICC has an effect on perceptions of impunity.

Friday, December 04, 2009 11:17:00 AM

Anonymous D. Watson said...

Thank you for your discussion.

Friday, December 04, 2009 11:46:00 AM

Blogger Elizabeth Allen said...

I didn't have as favorable a take on Hochchild's piece. It was interesting, but also seemed a little light-weight. For example, Unicef allegedly found Lubanga's child soldiers being trained in Uganda -- something which Ocampo undoubtedly knew about, and yet Ocampo chose to ignore this evidence in order to collaborate with Museveni over the LRA instead of pressuring the Ugandan government to stop patronizing Lubanga. I wish Hochschild would have explored the regional politics of the ICC, and the court's repeated decisions to target the pawns and middle-weights within the Great Lakes instead of using the court's considerable prestige to pressure the area's patrons. Hochschild mentions Rwanda and Uganda in passing, but doesn't stop to ponder the court's role vis-a-vis these power players. (The Congolese government is also implicated here.)

Also, I think it's interesting (and unfortunate) that Hochschild talks about the European Court of Human Rights, but doesn't mention the potential for regional entities within Africa to take the lead in pursuing some of this work. The AU has the recent Mbeki report on Sudan, and I heard some good things coming out of the Abuja conference. I can't speak much for the East African Community, but Ecowas seems to be getting stronger...

In any case, parts of the piece reminded me of the unfortunate tendency of American writers to focus on micro-reporting in African conflicts (the interviews with people who have been violated, the individual anecdotes of the perpetrators) while neglecting the larger political context. Hochschild's piece, for me at least, fell within this all-too-common, and all-too-sad genre.

Friday, December 04, 2009 10:16:00 PM

Anonymous Tranistionland said...

The point that many Congolese teens join armed groups voluntarily is interesting in a social context, but largely irrelevant in a legal one.

Kids do many things out of desperation, loyalty to their communities and ideological conviction. In the part of the world I study, they blow themselves up in markets and government buildings. They do these things for complex reasons they will and do gladly articulate when given the opportunity.

Policy-makers and social scientists should consider child soldiers' motivations seriously. However, international law regarding child soldiering is meant to protect children not only from forced conscription, but from the inherent exploitation of serving in armed groups before they are adults. It is no more ok for children and adolescents to fight wars than it is for them to work in brothels, regardless of the motivations or degree of coercion involved.

Of course that doesn't mean root causes should go unaddressed, it just means courts like the ICC are the wrong fora for that.

Friday, December 11, 2009 12:22:00 PM


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