[Patryk I. Labuda is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. Before joining the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, he worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and South Sudan.]
Although international criminal law is increasingly assimilated with the International Criminal Court (ICC), hybrid justice remains surprisingly common thirteen years after the establishment of the landmark Special Court for Sierra Leone. Last month a UN-mandated International Commission of Inquiry made headlines when it recommended a hybrid tribunal for the Central African Republic (CAR). Citing the collapse of the country’s judicial system, Philip Alston, one of the Commission’s members, suggested that the international community should ‘act fast’ to ‘fund a tribunal’ if it wanted to break the ‘cycle of impunity’ fueling the conflict. His plea came on the heels of similar calls for a hybrid judicial mechanism in South Sudan, which has received the endorsement of international advocacy groups and the UN in recent months.
It is clear that the establishment of the ICC, the only permanent court with (potentially universal) jurisdiction over international crimes, has not eliminated the need for more tailored, country-specific responses to mass violence. Different kinds of hybrid tribunals have operated, or continue to operate, in the aftermath of violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, Indonesia (East Timor), Iraq, Lebanon, Chad and Kosovo. What is less known is that blueprints for mixed international-national jurisdictions have also emerged in many other conflict- and post-conflict settings, including Liberia, Burundi, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sudan and Somalia. Two names can now be added to that long list of African states: South Sudan and CAR.
What these proposals have in common is that not one of these hybrid tribunals has actually been set up, despite – in some cases – years of lobbying by local civil society groups and oft-repeated assurances from African governments that accountability is essential for national reconciliation. This prompts the question: why are hybrid tribunals so frequently debated but so rarely established in the aftermath of African conflicts?
Hybrid and internationalized tribunals emerged in the early 2000s as a corrective to other forms of international criminal justice. There is no single definition of ‘hybridity’, but the notion is used conventionally to refer to institutions that mix national and international elements. Unlike purely international courts, such as the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda or the ICC, hybrid tribunals have either mixed jurisdictional bases (domestic and international law) or mixed staffs (domestic and international judges or prosecutors). The hope was that this blending of international and local elements would allow such tribunals to overcome the limitations of both purely domestic courts and fully international bodies.
International justice activists advance three broad claims about hybrid justice. First, by bringing together local and international partners, mixed tribunals have the potential of building domestic capacity and increasing the legitimacy of prosecutions among affected populations. Second, despite the growing number of ratifications of the ICC Statute, hybrid tribunals remain an important alternative where the ICC cannot exercise jurisdiction. Last but not least, the hybrid model should decrease the tension between international demands for accountability and state sovereignty. By giving states a say in the design of hybrid mandates, it was hoped that state concerns about international criminal law could be adequately addressed.
Debates around proposed hybrid tribunals in Africa reveal that, if there is still some consensus on the first two points, reconciling state interests with internationally-driven accountability has proved elusive in practice.
Contrary to expectations, hybrid justice now looks like the most invasive form of international intervention. Many African governments – Kenya being the prime example – understand that the prospect of a hybrid tribunal is far less appealing than the much-demonized ICC. Notwithstanding the high-profile standoff between the AU and the ICC, individual African states have learned to skillfully manipulate the ICC to their advantage. By outsourcing sensitive cases to The Hague while trying minor perpetrators before domestic courts, the governments of the DRC, Uganda, Kenya and Cote d’Ivoire have all, to different degrees, used the ICC’s interventions to bolster their domestic standing. Due to the ICC’s limited enforcement powers, it is relatively easy for states to project an image of compliance where cooperation is convenient, and obstruct the ICC’s investigations where national or regional interests are at stake.
It is doubtful that hosting a hybrid tribunal on one’s own territory offers the same flexibility. Established for more or less defined periods of time (mandates vary), hybrid tribunals operate under the watchful eye of international staff, which prevents national authorities from controlling investigations and prosecutions. A key stumbling block in negotiations over the establishment of hybrid tribunals in Africa, notably in the DRC, has been the composition of their staff. Echoing political disputes from the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, where a preponderance of national staff allowed Cambodian magistrates to outvote their international peers, the Congolese government has rejected UN attempts to secure a majority of international judges and prosecutors. Loath to finance projects it cannot control, the international community has sought to craft mandates that give them an outright majority, for instance in Kenya and Liberia. Early reports from CAR suggest this may emerge as a sticking point in negotiations between the government and international donors. While the Central African authorities have emphasized hybridity and the need to bolster domestic capacity, Alston’s remarks imply that a more robust international presence will be required due to a lack of independent national judges.
The obstacles to establishing hybrid tribunals in Africa vary from country to country, so it is important to not overstate the dismal success rate of such proposals. As with the ICC, complex political dynamics at the domestic, regional and international levels explain these setbacks. However, it is precisely the AU’s repeated condemnations of the ICC, coupled with its advocacy of ‘African solutions to African problems’, that prompts a critical look at its efforts to pursue hybrid justice.
Though last week’s decision to commit Hissène Habré to trial has rightly been praised by human rights advocates, it is important to remember the convoluted process by which the Extraordinary African Chambers in Senegal were established. Similar problems have arisen in relation to Darfur, Kenya and South Sudan. Despite years of mediation led by Thabo Mbeki, the Sudanese government’s refusal to act on the AU’s calls for a hybrid tribunal has elicited practically no follow-up from the AU. In Kenya, the AU’s support for President Kenyatta has been a one-way street, with no sustained pressure to resurrect the Waki Commission’s idea of a Special Tribunal (or a purely domestic accountability mechanism). This also explains why last month’s decision to ‘indefinitely shelve’ the report of the AU’s South Sudanese Commission of Inquiry has caused so much consternation. The AU appears, yet again, to be prioritizing peace over justice.
The Central African Republic is the next test case for the viability of hybrid justice in Africa. At first blush, the prospects of the proposed ‘Special Criminal Court’ in CAR – where the interests of the national government, the AU and international actors coincide – seem good. The transitional government signed a memorandum of understanding with the UN several months ago, and investigations would focus on non-state actors: rebels from the Seleka and anti-balaka movements. Yet the track record of African hybrid tribunals suggests a good dose of caution. Progress on legislation needed to bring the Special Court into existence has been slow, and it remains unclear who will fund a tribunal operating alongside the ICC. One thing is certain, the money will not come from the AU which is busy laying the groundwork for its institutional alternative to the ICC: the revamped African Court of Justice and Human Rights with criminal jurisdiction and immunities for heads of state and senior officials.
In the end, there is a distinct possibility that the Central African court will join the ranks of most other African hybrid ventures, which remain in the realm of promising but unfulfilled ideas. If this happens, it might well be time to ask whether hybrid justice on the continent resembles something of an African mirage… as one approaches and strains for a closer look, the prospect of justice recedes on the horizon.