In DepthColumnsThe road to hell


Posted on Thursday, 29 March 2012 16:17

The road to hell

Patrick Smith

To borrow a little from Samuel Johnson, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and bad interventions. This year, intervention policies are under close scrutiny as the promoters of international law and political accountability try to win back some lost ground. Regimes and organisations responsible for mass killings continue unhampered in Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Sahel region in West Africa.

This is despite the establishment of the principle of Responsibility to Protect at the UN's 2005 World Summit, together with a new framework of laws pledging to protect civilians in armed conflicts. The founding charter of the African Union had preceded the move in 2002, establishing the Union's right "to intervene in a member respect of grave circumstances, namely war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity."

Yet deep-seated divisions within both the UN and the AU have prevented concerted action to protect civilians in most war zones. The most heinous case today is that of Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad's regime is held responsible for the deaths of more than 7,500 people. The opposition of China and Russia at the UN Security Council to any serious economic sanctions or arms embargoes, let alone the establishment of humanitarian corridors or UN-protected safe areas, has allowed the Assad regime to continue with impunity. 

No western power is openly offering military help to Syria's opposition, although Turkey and Saudi Arabia are discreetly providing some. With some irony, the UN dispatched its former secretary-general Kofi Annan, who had presided over the adoption of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, to Damascus to negotiate an end to the violence.

Few are optimistic that even Annan's diplomatic skills will persuade al-Assad to take his troops off the streets. Syria's opposition regards the UN's move as a great betrayal. Annan's diplomatic career has been punctuated by interventions and wars. He was head of peacekeeping at the UN during the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia and the genocide in Rwanda.

In Bosnia, it was Europe's military muscle – and sense of shame – that forced it to protect the hundreds of thousands of Bosnian muslims targeted by the Serbian militias. At the time of Rwanda's genocide in 1994, Britain, France and the United States led a disgraceful abdication of responsibility at the UN Security Council; one with which China and Russia were happy to concur. 

From those events, Annan has drawn his own conclusions about interventions. He opposed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, correctly advising that it would lead to a breakdown of the country and loss of tens of thousands of lives. For the same reason he opposed NATO's intervention in Libya last year, arguing that it would undermine the hard-won respect for the Responsibility to Protect principle. 

It has taken the ICC 10 years and almost $1bn to secure its first conviction. Meanwhile, for others indicted by the court it is business as usual.

The unavoidable conclusion is that the tools we have today are not working and that impunity still thrives. It has taken the International Criminal Court 10 years and almost a billion dollars to secure its first conviction: that of Thomas Lubanga in March for recruiting child soldiers in the north-east DRC.

Meanwhile, for others indicted by the court for mass murder and crimes against humanity such as Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir and his defence minister Abdel Rahim Hussein, it is business as usual. Indeed, the former UN resident representative in Sudan Mukesh Kapila accuses al-Bashir of launching a new genocide in South Kordofan since his indictment by the court in 2008. 

In Africa, both the ICC and the Responsibility to Protect doctrine have lost critical support. The replacement of ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo by Gambia's Fatou Bensouda offers the court a chance to restore its standing among African states, which initially strongly supported it. They may take it more seriously if the more powerful countries – such as the US, China and Russia – also joined. But a stronger court will depend partly on the African Union's practical commitment to live up to its founding doctrine.

In turn that means Africa's citizenry, who favour accountability, will have to put real pressure on their leaders for change. 

Last Updated on Friday, 30 March 2012 17:35

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is Editor-in-Chief of The Africa Report. He has edited the political and economic insider newsletter Africa Confidential since 1992 and was associate producer on a documentary about the 2004 coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea commissioned by Britain's Channel 4 television.


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