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.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?
“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.”
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.