Justice, African Style: Africa Has Taken a Giant Step Forward in Running Its Own Affairs-It Has Asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague to Stay out of Its Conflicts. Instead, It Wants to Set Up Its Own System of Justice for War and Human Rights Crimes

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Led by Nigeria, acting on behalf of the African Union, the continent has proposed the setting up of an African Tribunal to handle crimes against humanity and those caused during war.

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To emphasize the seriousness of its proposal, a group of religious leaders from northern Uganda traveled to The Hague to plead with the chief prosecutor of the ICC. "Stay out of our wars. We can handle it ourselves and you'll only make it worse if you get involved," was their message.

The Ugandan plea is symbolic of the rising debate over the ICC's role in African conflicts, particularly over the balancing of two vastly different systems of justice.

Many African leaders recognise the fundamental difference between the punitive sense of justice as practiced in the West and the conciliatory one symbolized by South Africa's renowned Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Pardoning many apartheid-era torturers and murderers has been the cornerstone of that country's policy of healing, one that has worked well in the South African context.

This same system of reconciliation is now being proposed under the Nigerian initiative that would apply African solutions to African problems, solutions that many believe would be far preferable.

"In an effort to strike a balance between the prosecutorial approach of the West's legal system and the restorative justice as deemed most appropriate for Africa, the restorative justice approach is coming to the fore," Paul Nantulya of the Cape Town, South African-based Institute for Justice and Reconciliation believes.

"This should be used to address the atrocities in Darfur, Sudan which some believe amounts to genocide, and the civil conflict in Uganda."

The Nigerian proposal would initially establish a justice and reconciliation tribunal to deal with allegations of war crimes in Darfur.

Thousands of people have been killed since February 2003 in this desert region and the UN's Security Council is deadlocked on what to do. If the Nigerian proposal is accepted, the tribunal would be expanded to develop African solutions for pan-African problems.

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As a secondary issue it might also break the log-jam in the UN Security Council over disagreements between US President Bush's hardline approach towards the Sudanese government and the pro-ICC European approach.

The Bush administration is strongly opposed to the ICC in principle, and adamantly opposes the world court mindful that US troops could be subjected to charges of war crime claims. The Abu Ghraib human rights abuses in Iraq are clearly an issue.

To circumvent the possibility of US military officials being arrested in foreign countries, the US has been signing bi-lateral protection agreements with as many countries as possible. The theory is that these agreements give the Bush administration the political leverage it needs to forestall any potential ICC judicial action.

African traditional structures work best

For Ugandans who have suffered so much during the 18-year conflict between the government in Kampala and rebel leader Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), the matter of a more conciliatory approach has a far more practical side. "If rebel leader Joseph Kony and the LRA leadership are indicted by the ICC, they will use our people as human shields," Sheik Musa Khalil of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative said in Gulu, Uganda prior to leaving for The Hague. "Furthermore, without forgiveness we cannot rebuild the community after the war, something that will be essential if the conflict is not to break out again."

Sheik Khalil and other African leaders argue that traditional African tribal structures are appropriate for dealing with civil war atrocities such as the kidnapping of children to make them into child-soldiers or military prostitutes.

The brutalising of the civilian population in a vast swathe of northern Uganda is clearly classified as a war crime under ICC statutes. …