What’s so wrong with impunity?

Britain’s Apaches have flown into action, attacking a government checkpoint near Brega, as Colonel Gaddafi clings on desperately to power. In Sudan, an attack by northern forces in a disputed border region scatters more than 80,000 people. And at the Hague, Ratko Mladic boasts and swaggers his way through the first of countless court appearances.

Mladic is facing justice after ending up on the losing side, forced to hide for 15 years before the UN war crimes court finally caught up with the Butcher of Srebrenica.

How different to President Omar al-Bashir in Sudan and Colonel Gaddafi, both of whom remain in power. One has already been indicted by the International Criminal Court – in some part modeled on the Yugoslavia tribunal – the first sitting president to be the subject of an arrest warrant. The other, is likely to find himself placed on the wanted list very soon. The court’s chief publicist prosecutor has already asked for warrants to be issued for the arrest of Gaddafi.

This is the first case in Libya. The Office will further investigate allegations of massive rapes, war crimes committed by different parties during the armed conflict that started at the end of February, and attacks against sub-Saharan Africans wrongly perceived to be mercenaries. “There will be no impunity for such crimes in Libya,” said the Prosecutor.

“Impunity” is the buzzword of our times. Our language of condemnation is dominated by the human rights discourse. No-one should escape justice, it says, or be allowed avoid facing up to their crimes. Logical enough.

It was forged during the 1990s when Rwanda imploded in an orgy of killing. We, the West, the United Nations, the rest of the world, failed to intervene. So too the world was horrified by the way Yugoslavia tore itself apart with ethnic cleansing and vicious crimes.

A legalistic approach was developed to mop up the perpetrators once the conflict was finished. Suspects from the losing Hutu tribe were rounded up and tried at a UN tribunal in Tanzania, or at local Gacaca courts. So too Mladic finds himself hunted down and flown to the Hague

But the same approach fails miserably with dictators still in power. President Bashir has told at least one Arab leader that he would have stepped down by now were it not for the threat of arrest. He is safe so long as he is president, but fears being sold out later by a new regime doing deals with the West.

And what is the end game for Gaddafi? The simplistic quest for justice has made it difficult to see how a negotiated settlement is possible. Why would he step down or share power with a target hung around his neck? The quest for justice – and an end to “impunity” – shuts down the tools for compromise, negotiation and ultimately peace.

If Idi Amin was in charge of Uganda today, he would be unable to do a flit to Saudi Arabia. The human rights campaigners and their legalistic approach would effectively keep him in power. His slaughter would not have ended in 1979.

Distasteful though it is, impunity – immunity from prosecution – has always been a juicy bone to tempt the mad dog from his reign of brutal power. Let’s save prosecution for the defeated, for the broken men hiding in spider holes and stop the ICC’s counter-productive grandstanding.

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