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Peace or Justice?




I’ve been doing this brilliant course under Professor Michael Scharf of Case Western Reserve University on International Criminal Law. My second module, specifically the part which lightly touched on the question of peace and justice and the trade-off between the both of them got me thinking. Angelina Jolie, in a short speech at an event by the Council of Foreign Relations explained that there can be no enduring peace without justice.

At first, it threw me off gear to know that there were situations where there was actually a trade off between the two. As the lecture proceeded, examples of exile-for-peace incidents were offered, revealing that leaders with blood on their hands were offered complete amnesty in exchange for their immunity from trial. When war rips a country apart by destroying its social, economic and political life, it impacts the last human being living there. He faces a complete deprivation of what he knew to be his normal life. Access to food and clean water becomes an insurmountable challenge. Violence takes over and his physical safety comes into question. He finds expenses mounting for the bare essentials that manifest themselves only in the underground or in the black market, so he hoards, and saves every last penny he can lay his hands on. In a situation like that, what a person in war would be forced to choose is peace, even if it means that the leader who allowed the atrocities to happen will be escaping trial: anything, as long as he isn’t going to commit the atrocities that he did.

I had the honour of speaking with a renowned lawyer, Binaifer Nowrojee, who told me that the women in a war-stricken land do want justice. But that “want” gets lost in a lengthy list of several other wants, ranging right from their and their families’ safety, food, shelter, clothing, education, money and a way out of poverty, and as much semblance to normalcy as they can. There was a time when Justice was a supreme value, but today, the buzzword has decidedly become about peace, sometimes, even at the cost of justice.
What my lecture made me realise is that there isn’t always that one route to peace. Peace shouldn’t come at the cost of justice, especially if the peace we want is to be sustainable, durable and long-standing. Take Charles Taylor for example. While he was the President of Liberia, there was no dearth to the atrocities he orchestrated and implemented in neighbouring Sierra Leone. He was offered amnesty, initially, and then lived elsewhere until he started making attempts to assassinate other leaders. Had he not been given amnesty in pursuit of temporary peace, he could have been tried, and had that happened, he would not have been behind the conception and attempts of assassinations. 

Sometimes, it is seemingly simply impossible to make a leader stop his atrocities against his own people, understandably so. A time comes when the international community forces itself into the country in the name of humanitarian intervention, but in many instances, such action has proven to be more destructive than anything else. So they try to come down heavily on the leader. The use of economic sanctions does not harm the leader as much as they harm the civilians, and instead of encouraging regime change, it tends to encourage the thriving of a lively black-market. The prevalence of a rule of complementarity in the only permanent court to handle International Criminal Law, the International Criminal Court, is also a hindrance to bringing these leaders to justice. By the rule, the ICC has jurisdiction only as a court of last resort, where it can take over only if a country is unwilling or unable to prosecute a leader – in which case a Security Council resolution under Chapter VII (needing consent of the permanent members) is a prerequisite.

While this is so, the mere threat of prosecution has made several leaders of the world wake up to reality and surrender to the law, such as Slobodan Milosevic in the ICTY, when Louise Arbour decided to prosecute him for his atrocities against the Kosovars. There is plenty of evidence to prove and assert that peace should come through justice, and not at the cost of it. I am no expert in the field, but I will try to offer up what I believe might help. The first step would be to get the non-signatories in the international community as a whole to wake up and warm up to the prospect of signing and ratifying the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Secondly, there should be a more comprehensive expansion of the court’s jurisdiction. This does not mean suo moto powers for that might warrant arbitrariness of a different kind altogether, but rather, a mechanism where the world community can ensure that a leader is brought to book if he has a hand to play in committing war crimes and other atrocities against his own people. This would put a barrier against attempts at seeking and granting amnesty.

Peace and Justice are two sides to one coin. One cannot exist without the other: a state of peaceless-ness begets injustice, and peace achieved without justice is like sweeping dust under the carpet and calling your house clean. There should never be a choice.

About the Author:  Kirthi Jayakumar is the Founding Editor of A38.

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