Peace and Justice in the Real World
Peace and Justice in the Real World
A Pivotal Moment for EU Foreign Policy
A Pivotal Moment for EU Foreign Policy
Op-Ed / Global 5 minutes

Peace and Justice in the Real World

In 1995, Nigerian playwright and rights activist Wole Soyinka came to the White Crisis to discuss the brutal dictatorship of Sani Abacha.  Given the suffering that he and his countrymen and women had endured under General Abacha, including large numbers of rapes of women by security forces, we expected him to launch into a philippic against the leader.  But Soyinka's message was different.  He called on President Clinton to quietly inform Abacha that he could have one more year more year as president, at which point the United States would ensure that Abacha was not prosecuted for his crimes, and that he could live out his life with his stolen booty.  But there was one catch: Abacha and his cronies must leave the Nigeria to the people.  The deal was never proffered, and Nigerians suffered under Abacha's reign of terror for another three years before his death in 1998.  

I thought of that visit recently when considering Crisis Group's position on Zimbabwe.  In December 2008 report, we stated that if Robert Mugabe would agree to immediately leave office and facilitate a transition to a non-partisan transitional government, he could be granted immunity from domestic prosecution and extradition.  We did not recommend immunity from international prosecution, and we even raised the idea of UN Security Council referring the actions in Zimbabwe to the International Criminal Court for investigation and possible prosecution.  Our field-based staff told us that while the majority of the Zimbabwean people, including those who have suffered Mugabe's wrath, would likely support such limited immunity in exchange for his departure, it was difficult for them as Zimbabweans to raise the issue.  So we did.

Let's be clear: there are few tougher questions in the international peace business than the balance of peace and justice.  In the long-term, the two concepts are inseparable: lasting peace is only possible if built on the foundation of rule of law and accountability.  I have often argued that peace agreements based on broad impunity too often place a cancer at the heart of post-conflict reconciliation.  Similarly, I believe that amnesties generally mean that men with guns forgive other men with guns for crimes committed against women.  At the same time, the task of building competent judicial, police, and corrections institutions is vastly more complicated during times of conflict.  And what could be more unjust than the taking of life indiscriminately during warfare, especially given that 90 percent of the victims of modern war are civilians?

But in the shorter run, there are indeed trade-offs.  Virtually every peace agreement involves some concessions that sacrifice justice in exchange for peace.  If not, it is difficult to see why any insurgent forces would be willing to hand in their weapons or why any government would cede power to the opposition.  For me, it usually comes down to a fairly utilitarian view of the trade-off: in the long-run, will the prospects for security and well-being for people in war-affected countries be promoted more by a somewhat unjust peace or by a continuation of conflict. 

Each case is unique.  Take northern Uganda.  My hatred for the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and its head, Joseph Kony, knows no bounds.  Still, I argued last year for a one-year exemption from International Criminal Court war-crimes prosecution for the five indicted leaders of the LRA if it could be reasonably expected that this would get them to hand in their weapons.  Those who opposed this exemption carried the day, and they may feel they have the "moral" side of the argument.  But I'm not certain that this sentiment would be shared by the families of the thousands of women killed or raped by marauding LRA combatants in eastern Congo over the past two months.

I recall the words of Jan Egeland, former UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, when asked if it was proper for him to go see Kony.  Egeland responded, "I would negotiate with the Devil if it would improve the situation of refugees in Hell."
Similarly, our proposal for domestic immunity for Mugabe, as well as the senior security officials that form his war council, was originally raised more than a year ago.  There are indications that hardline generals concerned about possible prosecution persuaded a wavering Mugabe to stay in office to protect himself and them following his electoral defeat in March 2008.  What if the proposed amnesty had been formally on the table at that point?  Would we have seen thousands of deaths from cholera, divide-and-rule repression, torture, mass displacements, and other tragedies in the past year?  No one will ever know for sure - and that's really the point.  There are no certainties in this arena.

Yes, there are cases where the heinous nature of crimes committed precludes negotiating with killers both for utilitarian reasons - i.e., the resulting agreements rarely hold - and for moral reasons.  A decade later, I still do not understand why the negotiators of the Sierra Leone peace process believed that giving the murderous and deceitful Foday Sankoh a vice presidency and full amnesty was a short-cut to lasting peace.  In the same vein, I met with Jonas Savimbi in Angola some three dozen times from 1995-98 to get him to abide by the rules of the Angolan peace process.  In the end, when he pulled out of the process, I concluded that there was not other solution than defeating him militarily.

Then there is the argument about deterrence: giving one abusive leader a pass sends a message to the next abusive leader that all will be forgiven.  It is a view I generally share, but again, it is not an absolute truth.  Clearly, Mugabe himself was not deterred by the sight of Charles Taylor and Slobodan Milosevic in the dock at The Hague.  And who are we to tell the women of Zimbabwe that they must continue to suffer under brutal repression because withholding amnesty from Mugabe might possibly deter some future dictator from similar abuses? 

And that's the final point: we should give great weight to the voices of the people in the affected country - in this case, Zimbabwe - in answering the question of immunity.  Alternative means to recognize and validate their suffering can be identified, including through truth and reconciliation commissions and official compensation.  Our principal job as outsiders - in our case, an international non-profit organization committed to preventing and ending conflict - is to help ensure that the options are all on the table and the local and international consequences understood.  As of now, the people most affected by Mugabe's brutality - the members of the Movement for Democratic Change, including the recently beaten Morgan Tsvangirai - have taken the decision to share the seat of power with their abusers.  This is indeed their choice to make, and let us now do everything in our power to ensure that their courage is rewarded with a future of peace and justice. 

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.