Leaving the ICC may not save tyrants

Zimbabwe, Gambia, Djibouti. In or out of the ICC, justice is finding ever more ways to bring the baddies to book.

In Nairobi, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe met the leader of Djibouti where Tokyo will have its first foreign base since 1945.

In Nairobi, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe met the leader of Djibouti where Tokyo will have its first foreign base since 1945.

Where is mass-murderer Charles Taylor serving his 50-year sentence for crimes against humanity?

And who offered a $2m reward for his arrest?

Fourteen years ago, Taylor was behind massacres in the Sierra Leone civil war, and at home while president of Liberia.

If you said he is jailed at The Hague, and the International Criminal Court (ICC) put up the money, it’s a common mistake.

Now 68, he’s doing time at Frankland Prison near the English border with Scotland. And the reward came from the US Congress.

Indeed, all the high profile tribunals including Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia and the trial of Charles Taylor were independent of the ICC.

And as more African countries leave the Court, it has opened debate on global justice.

So far, South Africa, Kenya, Burundi and Gambia have signaled their intention to renounce the Statute of Rome, a list of offences covered by the Court including torture, murder, abduction by the state, rape and illegal deportation.

One problem is that some who have joined are, themselves, in breach.

Miss Fatou Camara was press secretary to Gambian president Yahya Jammeh who has ruled since a coup in 1994. Without reason she was fired and, in 2013, charged with spying.

In exile, she now runs an online radio station.

“I have calls every day from people who have fled the Gambia,” she told Human Rights Watch. “And the country we know today is one of illegal arrest, detention and disappearance without trace.”

Another journalist, Mr Musa Sadykhan was picked up by the secret police. “They told me my problem was my mouth and writing with my hand,” he says. “So they broke my hands into pieces and slashed my face with a bayonet.”

He has also left the country.

Yet Gambia, and others known for torture including Burundi, the Central African Republic and Djibouti, are members of the ICC

On 17 July 1998, Zimbabwe was one of the first to sign the treaty but failed to ratify. For the statute to become law, it must be passed through the home parliament.

Where does this leave those who took part in the Gukurahundi genocide with up to 40,000 dead in Matabeleland, or Murambatsvina when 700 000 people saw their homes bulldozed by the state? Zimbabwe has seen more than 200 political deaths mostly from the opposition, missing activists and countless reports of torture.

Critics say it’s only Africans who are investigated by the Court – a claim rejected at The Hague – and that sitting heads of state should be immune.

But no where is the debate more pointed than in Tokyo.

Since the end of World War ll, Japan has kept its army at home. However, there’s a changing mood, some say to counter the growth of China.

First stop is a small base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, but think-tanks and human rights groups in Tokyo have been quick to condemn the move. For more than 70 years Japan has felt a national shame over its former war crimes; now, say critics, its first step back to the global stage is with a dictator.

In August, prime minister Shinzo Abe held talks with Djibouti president Ismaïl Guelleh during a Japan-Africa summit in Nairobi.

Guelleh won 87 per cent of the vote at this year’s election, with much of the opposition in exile. And on any list by Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International, his name is linked to abuse, torture and disappearance.

Last December, police used live ammunition to disperse an unarmed protest, killing several dozen people.

Japan – the world’s fourth-largest economy – has long been a commercial player in Africa.

In the 1970s, Toyotas and Hondas were openly on sale in Salisbury and Bulawayo despite UN sanctions. For its shortcomings, Rhodesia had the strongest currency in Africa and could pay for the cars so Japan was happy to sell.

This time its more complex. Japan has no stake on the Horn though its ships go through Suez, just up the way from Djibouti. Also here are troops from China, France, Russia and more than 3000 personnel of the United States army, navy and air force.

Some newspapers in Tokyo have opposed what they see as  “a return to militarism.”

Others ask what happens when Guelleh dies or steps down and leaves a vacuum of power in his wake.

This has also led to debates in Washington and Paris. The US is looking at other options in Africa though, for now, there’s no sign of closing their camp in Djibouti.

But the US was also close to Charles Taylor in Liberia, a country so named because it was settled by freed slaves sent home to Africa from America.

In 1990 Mr Taylor and rival groups deposed his predecessor, Master-Sergeant Samuel Doe who was tortured to death in public.

After massacres in the Sierra Leone Civil War (1999-2003) were linked to the Liberian leader, President George W. Bush pressured for his arrest and Taylor was soon on trial in a special court at the Hague, but not the ICC.

On conviction Britain agreed to house him in Frankland Prison nearly 400 kilometres north of London where Peter Sutcliffe aka the Yorkshire Ripper is serving a life term for killing 13 women.

But during his trial, the American foreign intelligence service or CIA was forced to admit Charles Taylor had worked for them during his rise to the top.

Ironically, Ismaïl Guelleh worked for French intelligence before succeeding his uncle as president.

There’s no evidence Robert Mugabe worked for anyone, but after Gukurahundi, Perence Shiri who led the slaughter was welcomed by Britain and attended the Royal College of Defence Studies in London.

At nearly 93, the grave will take Mugabe ahead of any court. But for those who served him, the future can’t be certain. The same can be said in Gambia and Djibouti.

Debates in Japan rarely spill over, partly because of language (no other country speaks Japanese) and because, as a people, they keep their quarrels at home.

But justice for the oppressed, and holding leaders to account even after they have left office, has never been more prominent. Every major university has a department of human rights law, and aid is linked increasingly to good governance.

African leaders can withdraw from the ICC, but that may not be enough to keep them safe in a changing world.

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