Author: Mark Kersten

[Mark Kersten is the founder of the blog Justice in Conflict. He is a Senior Researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and a student at McGill University’s Faculty of Law.] You would think it was reason to celebrate: there is a distinct possibility of an international court investigating alleged international crimes in a region of the...

[Mark Kersten is a consultant for the Wayamo Foundation and a law student at McGill University. He is also author of the book, 'Justice in Conflict - The Effects of the International Criminal Court's Interventions on Ending Wars and Building Peace'.]  It isn’t for a lack of attention. Violence in Libya is covered almost daily in major newspapers and media outlets....

[Mark Kersten is a researcher based at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, the deputy director of the Wayamo Foundation and creator of the blog Justice in Conflict. This post is part of our Punishing Atrocities Symposium.] Understanding selectivity is something of a holy grail among scholars of observers of international criminal justice....

[Mark Kersten is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics and author of the blog Justice in Conflict. You can find him on Twitter @MarkKersten] Who would have thought that the most pressing question regarding the Responsibility to Protect in 2013 would be: what is it? The answer to this question is as unclear today as any time in R2P's...

[Mark Kersten is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics and author of the blog Justice in Conflict. You can find him on Twitter @MarkKersten] It is widely accepted wisdom that social media is radically transforming how we understand the world and share information. In this context, the emergence of Twitter, Facebook, blogging, etc. challenge the very practice...

[Mark Kersten is a PhD student in International Relations at the London School of Economics] International lawyers will undoubtedly pour over the landmark verdict handed down this week by the International Criminal Court, in which Thomas Lubanga Dyilo was found guilty of conscripting, enlisting and using child soldiers in the long-standing and brutal conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The...

I just want to briefly take the opportunity to thank everyone at Opinio Juris, especially Kevin, for giving me the chance to post here over the past two weeks. It's been a huge honour to be part of OJ and a joy to read everyone's comments. Thank you!

Revisiting the Peace-Justice Debate in northern Uganda

Perhaps no nation has witnessed so impassioned a debate on the relationship between peace and international criminal justice as Uganda. Northern Uganda, a case many believed the Court could “cut its teeth” on, sparked a fierce discussion, popularly referred to as the “peace versus justice debate”. This debate not only animated domestic politics but also the international discourse grappling with the effects of pursuing international criminal justice on the establishment of peace. The debate on the relationship between peace and justice largely remains harshly dichotomous and black-and-white. Either international criminal justice fundamentally disrupts the potential for creating peace or it is an absolute necessity for it. The attempted middle-ground which calls the peace-justice dichotomy “false” rarely offers any explanation as to why it's false. Northern Uganda may be our best opportunity to move beyond the rigidity of the peace versus justice debate. This post is an attempt to explain why this is the case by making two broad arguments: first, that the effects of the ICC on narratives regarding the dynamics and causes of conflict has profound implications on attitudes towards the relationship between peace and justice; and second, that the effects of the ICC on pre-negotiation dynamics as well as on negotiations themselves are distinct and should be analyzed as such.

Despite high rhetoric being flung across the Security Council yesterday, Russia and China's vetoing of the European-drafted resolution condemning Syria's brutal crackdown on civilians should come as no surprise. There are a number of political-tuned reasons to explain why this Resolution failed. The first relates to the disappointment and anger expressed by China and Russia at the intervention in Libya. Both...

If you can't see it, it can't and doesn't really matter that much. That seems to be the attitude of many of us to key issues of international concern. Take for example, a core contradiction in many people's hesitation to support the adoption of a carbon tax to combat climate change: it's fine to tax the trash we put out on the curb, but it's not fine to tax the trash we put in the air. The state of international criminal law privileges direct forms of violence. This is an extension of the dominant understanding of peace as negative peace, the absence of large-scale, direct forms of violence. The holy trinity of international crimes – war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide – constitutes physical violence perpetrated against victims. While the criminalization of some acts which “shock the conscience of humanity” is surely one of the most important developments in contemporary international politics, it has, perhaps inevitably, come at the expense of more structural or indirect forms of violence. Famine becomes something to support with donations and sympathy but not an issue for which anyone can be held responsible. Neglecting to protect vulnerable populations in the wake of environmental disasters becomes a challenge for humanitarian aid rather than an issue of criminal neglect. The real and potential destruction of peoples' livelihood through environmental degradation becomes a matter of business, job-creation and green politics and not a matter of justice – even when it risks eviscerating entire nations. Indeed, what about the more silent killers which threaten the life and livelihood of millions of people? There are those who have begun to challenge the monopoly of international crimes as direct forms of violence. This past week in London, a mock trial was held at the British Supreme Court where top lawyers played out two cases: one concerning the extraction of oil in Canada's notorious tar sands and one regarding BP's disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The charge? Ecocide, defined by its most forceful champions, Polly Higgins as:
“The extensive damage, destruction to or loss of ecosystems of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished.”
While the notion of ecocide is an attempt to criminalize large-scale environmental degradation, it is critical to highlight, in this context, how environmental degradation can create human death and suffering. This is not to be anthropocentric. But a much under-examined reality within international justice is the indirect, structural violence that is inflicted when states shirk their responsibilities to protect citizens from the effects of environmental trauma – whether from ecocide or natural disasters.

Observers have watched with keen interest as Mahmoud Abbas took the politically risky, some say courageous, move to seek UN recognition of Palestine as a state. At the very center of Abbas' polarizing decision is the International Criminal Court and the possibility of opening an investigation into alleged crimes in Palestine. To think that the ICC would be so integral a player in the challenge of peace in the Middle East would have been unimaginable just a few short years ago. Just as remarkable is the demonstrated centrality of statehood in the pursuit of global justice, something that surely keeps the dreamers of international criminal justice up at night. It really wasn't supposed to go this way. The ICC was meant to be a shining star in the liberal cosmopolitan trajectory which instructed the peoples of the world that no one could hide behind state sovereignty anymore. What mattered in global politics and ethics wasn't still supposed to be states over all else. Slowly, but surely, the post-WWII global conscience was intended to wither away the rigidity of statehood as the primary unit of international politics and replace it with “the human”. The most important association was no longer supposed to be a state or a territory or religion. These were to be secondary, displaced by a “consciousness of being a citizen of the world, whatever other affiliations we may have.” Citizenship of state was to become secondary to citizenship of a “worldwide community of human beings” who shared a universal ethical code and which represented and protected all those who counted themselves as human. We were to be universal individuals. Rights were ours as individual people but shared by all. These individual rights were to be protected but we were to care about them everywhere. It is as a result of this liberal cosmopolitan trajectory that we have a human rights regime, a doctrine of Responsibility to Protect and the International Criminal Court. It is in the name of our common, universal citizenship in “humanity” that these institutions and regimes were established. The ICC, in particular, is an acknowledgement that “cosmopolitan norms of justice accrue to individuals as moral and legal persons in a worldwide civil society,” and the creation of “protections for individuals as human beings.” “[W]hat advocates of the International Criminal Court aspire to, above all, is the creation of a universal moral and judicial community” to replace power politics. Central to the establishment of the Court was the notion that individuals – and not states – are responsible for violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, reflecting a view “that thinking of human rights violations as perpetrated by monolithic and abstract entities called states, and holding only states responsible...stood in the way of human rights enforcement”. As Kirsten Ainley writes, there is a palpable and “increasing focus on the individual, rather than the state, as the key agent in international politics,” the “result of the rise of cosmopolitan liberalism.” To return to the case of Palestine, what is remarkable is the centrality of statehood, and by extension state sovereignty, in the capacity of Palestinians to pursue international justice. Surely, to many readers this will be unsurprising – the ICC's Rome Statute, after all, was negotiated by states and nations only come under the Court's jurisdiction if they refer themselves or ratify the Statute. In other words, the Court continues to privilege statehood, at most marking a negotiation between state politics and the liberal cosmopolitan protection of human rights. However, with the case of Palestine the importance of the state-based power-politics has come only more forcefully into light.

A few weeks ago I spoke with a senior transitional justice researcher and aspiring politician from northern Uganda about the trials (if you excuse the pun) and tribulations of achieving peace and justice in the region. He described sentiments familiar to those who have engaged in the “peace versus justice” debate:
“I don't see it as a debate. It is common sense that in situations of what we have been experiencing, strategically we should be sequencing these issues, prioritizing and looking at what is best in the short-term and what is best in the long-term. It is very legitimate in any process that we must create an enabling environment that can guarantee justice can be done...If you start asking for justice even before you create that enabling environment, it is not even a debate, it is foolery...We must sequence them.”
I subsequently challenged him on the effectiveness of his argument to which he responded that Argentina was the ideal example of a state which had successfully sequenced peace and justice. The “sequencing argument” has become a popular feature in the rigid and harshly dichotomous “peace versus justice” debate. The argument is attractive because it represents an attempt to find ground between the polarizing views that there is “no peace without justice” and “there is no justice without peace.” While the sequencing argument is closer to the latter in suggesting that justice may have to follow peace it largely acknowledges that justice is necessary in the long term. Unlike scholars of a realist bent who are sceptical of any attempt to achieve justice in conflict and post-conflict contexts, the point is not to reject accountability and reconciliation but to create an environment in which pursuing justice enforces rather than destabilizes peace. The sequencing argument is rather nuanced and intuitive. It weaves together the two major strands of thinking on peace: positive peace and negative peace. Negative peace, the cessation of large-scale, direct violence, is required before justice can be pursued. If justice is sought prior to the “silencing of the guns”, then it risks prolonging the conflict. However, once a negative peace is secured, justice should be pursued. Only by identifying and rectifying past wrongs – including human rights abuses – can a more encompassing, positive peace be achieved. In short, the sequencing argument suggests a trajectory of:
violent conflict –> negative peace –> justice and accountability –> positive peace
Proponents of the sequencing argument have, however, not thoroughly scrutinized how their theory translates into practice. On the ground, the sequencing argument presumably looks a little like this: in order to achieve a cessation of violence, parties enter inclusive peace negotiations to achieve a power-sharing agreement and peaceful transition. The parties discontinue active conflict while even the most brutal and unsavoury of leaders are guaranteed amnesties as an incentive to cease violent activity. Once stability is assured and the time for accountability is ripe, those amnesties are revoked and the leaders of the conflict are brought to account, ushering in positive peace and justice.

This past summer, Uganda did something it had never done before: it put a rebel from the notorious Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) on trial for international crimes. The trial of Thomas Kwoyelo marked yet another fascinating twist in Uganda's experience of confronting past atrocities. The government's Directorate of Public Prosecutions alleged that Kwoyelo was guilty of 12 charges of grave breaches of the fourth Geneva Convention and 53 counts of violating Uganda's penal code. Last week, however, judges deemed prosecuting Kwoyelo unconstitutional and ordered him to be set free. The primary obstacle to trying any former rebels in Uganda is the state's Amnesty Law (2000) which was passed with the backing of powerful local northern Ugandan leaders. It effectively guarantees that any individual who either escaped or was captured and subsequently renounced rebellion can be granted reprieve from any prosecution. The trial of Kwoyelo raised, once again, unresolved issues about the use of amnesty laws in societies emerging from violent political conflicts characterized by widespread atrocities. During three months of research, I had the opportunity to attend much of Kwoyelo's trial and speak to many of those involved and affected by his case. From its inception, there was always something peculiar and uncomfortably political about the proceedings. The case opened, quite literally, to the tune of a marching band. While rather clumsy in their approach – much to the chagrin of the presiding judges – Kwoyelo's defense team argued that prosecuting their client was unconstitutional. Because other former combatants, including some who were senior to Kwoyelo, had been granted amnesty, trying Kwoyelo constituted an infringement of his right to fair treatment and equality before the law. Not being able to decide on the constitutionality of the case, the ICD referred it to the Constitutional Court, which agreed with the defense and ordered Kwoyelo to be granted an amnesty and be released:
"We are satisfied that the applicant has made out a case showing that the Amnesty Commission and the Director of Public Prosecutions have not accorded him equal treatment under the Amnesty Act. He is entitled to a declaration that their acts are inconsistent with Article 21(1) (2) of the Constitution and thus null and void. We so find. We order that the file be returned to the court, which sent it with a direction that it must cease the trial of the applicant forthwith."
The importance of the Kwoyelo trial, both legally and politically, is rather obvious. Had Uganda successfully tried and convicted Kwoyelo (and they still might), it would have given the government a plank upon which to build a complementarity challenge to the ICC's jurisdiction, something the government had expressed interest in doing. However, the spectre of a successful trial also instigated fears in northern Uganda. Former senior rebel commanders explained their uneasiness of potentially becoming the Government's next targets for trial if Kwoyelo was denied amnesty. The instability incurred by revoking thousands of amnesties would be absolutely devastating to a region and people eager to move forward. Of course, the granting of an amnesty and the defeat of the government's case against Kwoyelo is equally as controversial. International human rights groups sent representatives to monitor the trial and provide assistance to government lawyers. Predictably, Human Rights Watch argued that amnesties “for crimes such as war crimes and crimes against humanity run counter to international law and practice.” In the wake of the Kwoyelo verdict, Amnesty International released a statement which declared that:
“What we are witnessing here is simply pervasive impunity for serious crimes and human rights violations...Neither Thomas Kwoyelo, nor others accused of committing war crimes should be granted amnesty.”
Human rights groups and fervent human rights advocates and scholars have been engaging in what amounts to talking amnesties out of reality. They claim not only that it is morally and legally wrong to grant amnesties but ominously warn that doing so is to risk ever becoming a functioning, liberal democracy. However, that granting amnesties for crimes such as those allegedly committed by Kwoyelo “run contrary to international law and practice” is not obvious. To borrow from the decision in an Appeal's Chamber ruling at the Special Court for Sierra Leone: a duty to prosecute international crimes and a prohibition on the use of amnesties may be crystallizing, but has not yet crystalized.