Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Political Naiveté Has Been Institutionalised

Brendan O'Neill writes:

Brendan Behan once said there is no situation so bad that it cannot be made worse by the arrival of a policeman. Well today there is no war so bloody that it cannot be made bloodier still by the intervention of the ICC. From the luxurious environs of The Hague, cheered on by liberals who get a cheap political thrill from seeing white lawyers stand up to evil Africans, the ICC has today issued an arrest warrant for Colonel Gaddafi, one of his sons and his security chief. This act of international moral posturing, designed to make the ICC look serious and superior, is likely to intensify the stand-off in Libya.

On one level, the issuing of the arrest warrant just seems barmy. These ICC bigwigs seem so removed from the real and messy world of politics and warfare that they seriously imagine it is possible to bring a war to an end by press-releasing a piece of paper saying: “Wanted for crimes against humanity: Muammar Gaddafi.” They seem to have confused the war in Libya with a nightclub brawl in Camberwell, imagining it is possible to resolve the whole miserable shebang by demanding the arrest of a few of the ringleaders. Once upon a time only spotty sixth-formers in turgid classroom discussions about conflict resolution would say things like “Hey, let’s just arrest the evil dude!” Now such political naiveté has been institutionalised in the ICC.

Yet on another level, the ICC’s game of cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, the Enlightened West against the Dark Continent, can have unpredictable, potentially dangerous repercussions. If earlier instances of ICC interference into African conflicts are anything to by, the impact of the lawyerly intervention into Libya is likely to be twofold. Firstly it will further entrench Gaddafi and his forces, convincing them that it would be better go down with all guns blazing than to end up in The Hague alongside Karadzic and various other hated evil figures. And secondly it will remove the political initiative from the rebel forces in the east of the country, sending them the ultimately debilitating message that they would be better off waiting for outside forces to come and rescue them – in this instance, white, wig-wearing moral crusaders from the ICC – than to realise for themselves the liberation of their country.

When the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Omar al-Bashir, president of Sudan, in 2008, its impact was as swift as it was deadly. As the African Union correctly described it, the warrant “poured oil on the fire” of the stand-off between Khartoum and various insurgent groups in Darfur. It immediately undermined peace negotiations between Khartoum and Dafurian representatives. Well, why bother negotiating a settlement when a powerful external force has decreed that one side in the negotiations is an evil, crazily genocidal entity? Not surprisingly the Darfurian group the Justice and Equality Movement, which only weeks earlier had agreed to peace talks, responded to the ICC’s actions by rejecting any further negotiation with Khartoum. Even worse, the ICC’s depiction of Khartoum as a criminal government impacted on the fragile agreement that had only recently brought to an end the decades-long conflict in southern Sudan. Elements in southern Sudan felt emboldened to talk the talk against the government in Khartoum, now that it had been reduced to the level of a common criminal by the ICC.

Such are the potential side-effects of the ICC’s moral bluster and chest-puffing posturing. Its self-serving antics may create a buzz of excitement in cafes in Islington and Paris, but they have real, physical consequences for everyday people in Africa. The ICC’s ill-advised intervention into Libya makes the possibility of a negotiated settlement there, including one that might have led to Gaddafi stepping down, seem that bit harder to imagine. Instead, Gaddafi will feel antagonised and further isolated, likely to lash out more violently still against his opponents; and his opponents will adopt the role of the international community’s favourite pet victims, whose continued struggling and suffering just might, if they are lucky, win them more pity from the egotistical great and the good of The Hague and beyond. This warrant has just made a messy conflict messier, all in the name of making a few Western lawyers and observers feel morally moist. Nice.

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