x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

ICC prosecution in atrocity cases is the right thing to do

These are heady days at the International Criminal Court, as legal actions loom over both Ivory Cost and Libya. Critics are still complaining about the ICC's possible effects, but The National's United Nations correspondent argues that moving ahead with such cases is just the right thing to do.

Looming prosecutions against the embattled leader of Libya and the toppled strongman of Ivory Coast show how the wheels of justice are spinning faster than ever toward trying despots accused of atrocities against civilians.

But the anticipated International Criminal Court (ICC) cases against Col Muammar Qaddafi and Laurent Gbagbo have also reignited long-standing debates about the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal.

Critics say the court selectively targets African leaders who have been eschewed by the West, and that this compels them to cling to power and destabilise their countries for fear of ending up in the dock in a Dutch courthouse.

This week the ICC prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, outlined evidence of crimes against humanity in Libya to the UN Security Council, and said that within weeks he will request arrest warrants for three Libyan officials.

Building these cases appears relatively simple, given the documented examples of security forces shooting protesters and shelling rebel-held towns and of Col Qaddafi himself promising "no mercy and no pity" over the airwaves.

In Ivory Coast, as soon as president-elect Alassane Ouattara gained control he echoed the UN mantra of accountability, pledged to bring the defeated Mr Gbagbo to justice and requested ICC help in probing massacres by both sides during post-election violence.

The scene of alleged killings in Douekoe and other towns in western Ivory Coast is largely uncontaminated and investigators should have better access to witnesses and evidence than in past African atrocity probes.

Supporters of the ICC welcome recent developments. The unanimous UN Security Council resolution referring Libyan atrocities to Mr Ocampo had historic support from ICC sceptics such as the United States, Russia and China.

Advocates say ICC cases have a trickle-down effect and encourage national authorities to pursue violators. This claim is bolstered, they say, by domestic efforts to bring the toppled presidents of Egypt and Tunisia - Hosni Mubarak and Zine al Abidine Ben Ali - to justice.

The only two dictators to actually lose power during the "Arab awakening" are being pursued by authorities in their home countries for ordering attacks on demonstrators and on other charges. Tunisian and Egyptian officials have also stated an interest in joining the ICC.

Critics, however, warn that criminal proceedings in Egypt, Tunisia and Ivory Coast will discourage autocrats in the Middle East and elsewhere from relinquishing power when threatened, even if that involves killing protesters.

Yemen's embattled president Ali Abdullah Saleh, for example, has little personal interest in stepping down, but the prospect of spending decades peering through steel bars in Sana'a or The Hague certainly adds to his list of reasons for clinging to power.

The court's critics have no shortage of ammunition. Atrocities in Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Chechnya and Myanmar have gone unpunished because they are beyond ICC jurisdiction or because the politically-charged Security Council will not agree to authorise probes there.

The 2009 ICC indictment against Omar al Bashir, for atrocities in Darfur, was issued within a Security Council mandate, but the Sudanese president still flouts the court by travelling abroad to friendly countries without fear of arrest.

The western powers bombing Libya recognise the trade-off between peace and justice, and have discussed offering Col Qaddafi a prosecution-free exit to spare more bloodshed. Proposals for a GCC-brokered Yemeni peace plan also exempt Mr Saleh from prosecution.

While offering immunity to Col Qaddafi and Mr Saleh would be expedient, it would also be a mistake. The ICC and broader efforts towards accountability will only gain credibility if they aim to deliver justice that is universal, rather than selective.

Upholding the principle of accountability would send a message to rogue dictators to think twice before attacking protesters. It would also pave the way for a world in which justice for tyrants no longer relies on political feasibility.

James Reinl is The National's United Nations correspondent.