Just ahead of this week’s African Union summit in Libya, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma has advocated an old and discredited approach for dealing with African heads of state facing international justice, write Comfort Ero and Piers Pigou.
When a leader of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress speaks on such critical issues as impunity for the perpetrators of human rights violations, the rest of Africa listens. We listen because we recall with passion how apartheid was dismantled, ushering in a new era of democracy for South Africa.
So it comes as a shock that President Jacob Zuma used the recent meeting of the World Economic Forum for Africa to call for a continental policy favouring impunity. Sharing a roundtable conversation with President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Zuma proclaimed that the “world has changed” and that we must “do things differently and … not emphasise punishment” in dealing with leading perpetrators of serious crimes.
His statement is embarrassing and retrogressive, especially because the world has indeed changed – but not in the ways Zuma assumed.
What has changed is that over the last two decades a global consensus has grown that amnesty for violent crimes is morally and legally unacceptable. Africa led this change in many respects, and the newly-democratised South Africa enthusiastically supported the creation of the International Criminal Court in 2002.
What Zuma now proposes is not a “new” approach but an old and discredited one that would reinforce outdated visions of an Africa which resists human rights and is willing to tolerate the worst forms of brutality.
At a time when Radovan Karadzic is being brought before the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, Charles Taylor faces justice before the Special Court for Sierra Leone, and Peru has tried and convicted Alberto Fujimori, Zuma has chosen to make the worst kind of rationalization for African exceptionalism.
Even worse, Zuma’s statement was made just ahead of this week’s African Union summit in Libya, which has on its draft agenda at least two reports dealing with attempts to bring to trial African heads of state. Zuma’s “new” approach, coming just as the continent faces pressures from some of its leaders to thwart justice, threatens to undermine the legitimacy of international humanitarian law.
Zuma’s approach would protect the perpetrators and architects of violence at the expense of redress for their victims. Not only is no thought given to providing reparation to victims of such violence, but their right to see justice done would be extinguished. When societies fail to make victims’ needs a priority, those societies risk new cycles of violence.
President Zuma did not distinguish between short-term peace processes and durable peacebuilding. His “bold approach” would do more to promote political violence as a means of gaining power than promote peace. He would invite leaders of political violence to look forward to impunity and a mansion in a neighbouring state.
Zuma presents this position – a safe retirement home for African despots – as being “for the sake of our people,” when clearly this protection is antithetical to the public interest. His position suggests that domestic, regional and international legal commitments can be airbrushed away, cloaked under the rubric of the pragmatic notions of what best serves Africa.
Many commentators assume Zuma’s remarks refer mainly to President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Zuma is indeed faced with a serious problem in Zimbabwe that is likely to be resolved only when Mugabe is persuaded to step aside.
Mugabe’s decision to leave the scene will likely depend on guarantees of impunity being extended to members of his inner circle. That is all the more reason that accountability should not be bargained away. Prospects for sustainable transformation in Zimbabwe require more, not less accountability, extending to economic crimes and corruption.
Perhaps Zuma’s public remarks are a tactical gamble, presenting himself as “on side” with the recalcitrant leaders while knowing full well that Africa’s political leadership can provide no meaningful guarantees of impunity. If this benign interpretation is true, is it worth the egg that has landed on his face as a result of appearing an apologist for the continent’s perpetrators?
Comfort Ero is deputy director of the Africa Program of the International Center for Transitional Justice. Piers Pigou is a senior associate at the ICTJ.