Africa as Guinea Pig: Accountability in International Justice

Africa as Guinea Pig: Accountability in International Justice

Justice in post-conflict African states is nothing short of a fiasco. Given the vast number of perpetrators of crime during wars and conflicts, the International Criminal Court fails to suffice in trying all accused criminals. Consequently, the international community, beginning with South Africa, developed the concept of local tribunals to try individuals who didn’t make it on the list for trial by the ICC. Moreover, despite their foreign origin, local tribunals perpetuate the idea of homegrown justice, which is crucial to reinstating faith in in-country judicial processes. Setting up these criminal tribunals and stimulating national trials or truth and reconciliation commissions has become a common feature of the international community’s response to war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, lack of oversight on these tribunals has resulted in slow, stalled and flawed processes.

As was the case in post-apartheid South Africa, there have been tribunals, either national or semi-international, in Ghana and Sierra Leone. The Ethiopian “Red Terror” and the Rwandan genocide have also led to mass national trials. A U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was also created in 1994, following the one established a year earlier for the former Yugoslavia. In 2004, an article by Thierry Cruvellier also observed that Sierra Leone began experimenting with a “mixed” court that was hastily brandished as the “new model” for international justice. A mixed court is comprised of both international staff and nationals. The African continent has since kept its leading position as the guinea pig of international justice mechanisms. Currently, the International Criminal Court is either investigating or has issued warrants for 17 individuals all of whom are from Africa.

However favorable the idea of localized justice seems, press coverage of these events leaves a lot to be desired. The U.N International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which is based in Arusha, Tanzania, presents an ideal case. It’s mismanagement, geographical isolation and general slowness has only heightened its problems. Given Western medias’ knack for sensational African news, this apparently disinteresting occurrence has seen little or no press coverage. In such a context, a new phenomenon occurred: To fill this information gap, international nongovernmental organizations (NGO’s) have assumed the role of independent, private media companies. Three of them, whose headquarters are located in the United States (Internews), Switzerland (Fondation Hirondelle), and France (Intermedia) have provided coverage of the ICTR since the beginning of the trials in 1997. Since 2003, only the Swiss one is still operating on a daily basis in Arusha while the American one has essentially moved to Kigali. This eventual disengagement of the alleged ‘watchdogs’ is a recurrent trend among the international community in their judicial work in Africa.

Sierra Leone provides a slightly different situation. Unlike the ICTR, which has enjoyed some specialized journalistic coverage, the Special Court here, whose trials started in June 2004, is only covered, on a permanent basis, by local media. No information-focused NGO like the one in Arusha has opened any project in Freetown relating to the court’s activities. The local press in Sierra Leone suffers grave economic and ethical problems, as well as a lack of journalists trained in court reporting. As a result, the Special Court—which is principally funded by the United States, The Netherlands, Great Britain, and Canada—lacks any independent international watchdog. The only international NGO currently involved in monitoring the Special Court is the International Center for Transitional Justice. Unfortunately, it doesn’t aim at providing a public and independent journalistic coverage of the trials. Thus it cannot replace the press as a watchdog.

Situations in which NGO’s, dependent on donors’ financial support, are in charge of reporting on trials with a highly political dimension, raises questions about their independence and the role they are playing as a watchdog. NGO reporting has proved to be seriously lacking in investigative, analytical and critical approaches. The reigning editorial policy has been driven more by a “project” mentality, common to NGO’s, than a journalistic one. In Sierra Leone, a lack of independent and professional press has resulted in a lack of democratic control on the judicial process. Based on Rwanda and Sierra Leone, it is apparent that like political offices and institutions, the judicial process can be authoritarian, corrupt and dysfunctional once there is a lack of accountability. This lack of transparency in local tribunals has influenced politicians in other countries such as Kenya where those accused have been prominent advocates for an ‘independent’ local tribunal as opposed to going to the Hague for their role in the 2007-2008 post election violence. Their effort has since failed however.

This article does not question the potential effectiveness of local tribunals as much as it does the mechanisms set up to ensure that the tribunals are actually functional. With no counterbalancing legislative body, with state donors focused mainly on budgetary issues, and with human rights organizations reluctant to criticize institutions they helped create, there is an obvious need for independent press scrutiny to hold these tribunals accountable. A fusion of independent international press and training of local journalists is bound to help in achieving judicial transparency and accountability so much needed in these crucial processes.

One Comment

  1. This article is spot on on the issue of Kenyan politicians advocating for a local tribunal. They claimed it would have been the best option for Kenya, to show that the Kenyan Judiciary was independent and effective enough to handle the cases, but we all know that their inevitable interference with the court process would have paralyzed the local process. I am sure that most Kenyans are glad the cases were heard at the ICC and will eagerly await the verdict of Pre-Trial Chamber One, which is due on January.
    Kenyans have learnt a lot through the hearings, which were televised live on most local TV stations, and there is nowhere else to move for Kenya than forward.

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