13 October 2013

Africa: Desmond Tutu - 'This Is a Fight for the Soul of the Continent'

Photo: Boniface Mwangi/RNW
Post election violence in Kenya 2007 (file photo).

Desmond Tutu cackles loudly, his distinctive laugh filling the room, words of wisdom at the tip of his tongue. Just recently, I feel Tutu has less to laugh about than usual. He has been the driving force behind condemnation regarding Africa's appeal to either leave the ICC or to insist that African leaders who are in office do not need to appear before the court while leading their country.

He has said candidly and simply, "The ICC has been a powerful force for justice, peace and accountability not just in Africa, but around the world. Far from targeting Africa, it has served and protected Africa". He argues the ICC is far from the 'white man's witch hunt' as disgruntled African leaders are insisting.

The situation has arisen - driven strongly by Kenya - out of a desire for newly elected Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, to avoid appearing at the Hague while they are serving their time as heads of state. The main argument has been 'how can a head of state be expected to appear before the ICC? This has never happened before'. What everyone is potentially - or conveniently - forgetting under the haze of their rage is the pure absurdity that Kenyatta was elected in the first place.

Get out of jail free card

Being sworn in as president is not a 'get out of jail free card'. If anything, a trial by fire - or by ICC - is necessary at this time. Surely you wouldn't want a potentially convicted criminal, responsible for mass deaths and inciting tribal violence, to be the man who sits in office and makes key decisions that will affect your country for years to come? Many have argued Kenyatta and Uhuru's campaign to avoid the ICC is childish and, more importantly, a slap in the face of those who died during the post-election tribal violence in 2007. I must say, I wholeheartedly agree.

The need for accountability

Tutu knows what he's talking about when he speaks about operating with impunity and the need for some kind of accountability. He was a driving force behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which sought to either punish or grant amnesty to those who had committed unspeakable hate crimes under the apartheid-era. While some remain critical of the TRC's success or methodology, it can strongly be argued the TRC tirelessly negotiated a potentially explosive situation with the utmost tact and care. A true 'African solution' for an 'African problem'.

But, times have changed, and the TRC model will not work for every country. It requires buy-in and support from a nation's leadership. If a nation is lead by a tyrannical maniac, a process like the TRC will not be allowed to take place. Therefore, tyrannical maniacs need some kind of force - external to their country - that can intervene and point out their wayward ways and hand down warranted punishment. Hence, the argument in favor of the ICC.

The ICC doesn't have a vendetta against African leaders

A quick perusal of the ICC website's list of 'situations and cases' reads like a veritable encyclopedia of African misdemeanors. The current list includes situations in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Kenya, Libya, Cote d'Ivoire and Mali. A closer look, if you withstand reading through this list of purported crimes against humanity, reveals a small disclaimer-like statement at the bottom of the page noting "the OTP [Office of the Prosecutor] is currently conducting preliminary examinations in a number of situations including Afghanistan, Georgia, Guinea, Colombia, Honduras, Korea and Nigeria". So, there you have it: the ICC does not solely prosecute African countries. It is not on some kind of blatant vendetta against African leaders.

While the moniker of 'African solutions for African problems' gets bandied about at a rate second to none, it must be said that African countries who are signatories to the ICC did so of their own accord. 34 nations in the continent signed the Rome Statute.

A lawless continent

The call by African leaders to remove themselves from the oversight clutches of the ICC reveals a disregard for law and a blatant desire to side-step justice. In this regard, embarrassingly, the call only further cements what I can imagine some Western nations already think of Africa - a lawless continent where leaders act with impunity and rape, and pilage and butcher their people without the fear or necessity of accounting for their actions.

African leaders removing themselves from being accountable to the ICC is essentially Africa shooting itself - or its people - in the foot. It is not a move for Africa, but rather against Africa. As Tutu says, "it would signal to those currently perpetrating crimes against humanity that they may continue with impunity, and it would remove a strong deterrent against those who would consider such horrible acts in the future".

A license to kill

Tutu further hits the nail on the head saying poignantly, "Those leaders seeking to skirt the court are effectively looking for a license to kill, maim and oppress their own people without consequence. They believe the interests of the people should not stand in the way of their ambitions of wealth and power."

Thank goodness for Tutu, a man who speaks past the rhetoric of African defensiveness, choosing rather to focus on what matters. It is after all, the silenced people in this situation - those maimed and killed by tyrannical leaders - who should be the ones given the agency to decide whether African leaders should be tried by an international court. In their silence, at least the piercing cackling jovial Tutu stands firm.

Tutu said of the weekend conference, "Today's meeting is a contest between justice and brutal violence. Far from a fight between Africa and the West, this is a fight within Africa, for the soul of the continent. May righteous Africans raise their voices and affirm the ICC and the rule of law."

Kyla Hermannsen is a journalist for This is Africa.

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