By: C. Shawn McGuffey, Ph. D, Associate Professor Boston College Department of Sociology and African & African Diaspora Studies Boston College Faculty Profile
Dr. Shawn McGuffey, International Justice Project’s long-time partner from Boston College, was present in South Africa this past weekend during the 25th African Union Summit. Dr. McGuffey collected opinions from South African citizens in response to Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir fleeing South Africa, despite the High Court’s interim order that he be detained pending their decision on the validity of his arrest warrant.
Although the day was chilly and overcast in Cape Town, many of the South Africans with whom I spoke were heated and clear on their views of the internationally indicted Sudanese President Bashir’s release from a South African military airport yesterday while he attended the African Union Summit in Johannesburg. He was allowed to leave despite South Africa’s High Court ordering his stay until the legal matters were resolved. The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague first indicted Mr. Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2009, and would eventually be charged with three additional counts of genocide in 2010.
One female student from Johannesburg City College stated it was “quite ironic and hurtful” that Mr. Bashir was even allowed to attend the meeting considering this year’s theme: Women’s Empowerment and Development. “Here we have a man allowed to freely enter and leave the country and attend high-level meetings when he is a known orchestrator of genocide and facilitator of women’s rape and disempowerment. And he hasn’t developed a single thing except for more efficient and effective ways to murder fellow Africans and to avoid justice.”
A hotel receptionist in Cape Town echoed similar thoughts: “This whole situation makes us [South Africa] look bad,” she said. We South Africans know what it is like to wait and wait and wait for justice as we waited for justice from apartheid…We should know better. The people of Sudan have been waiting for justice and [South Africa] had a chance to give justice to a hurting people. We failed them. We failed ourselves.”
The failures and disappointments of which the above women speak mirrors advocates and authorities in the international community who were disheartened by the South African government’s blatant disregard to both its own High Court’s demands and its own official commitment to the International Criminal Court.
Not all South Africans, however, were disappointed. A shopkeeper in Cape Town City Centre supported Mr. Bashir’s escape: “ I’m glad he got away. The ICC is always [going after] African leaders.” He went on to ask and conclude: “Why don’t they indict [leaders in] the Middle East? And they need to indict George Bush! It’s not fair to target Africa. All the bad in the world is not here in Africa.”
A cab driver in Century City also expressed his frustration with the International Criminal Court: “[ICC] is only targeting Africans, only African states. The colonizer has come back to punish his former colonies. I’m glad [South Africa] let him [Bashir] go.”
These local, diverging perspectives illuminate the global debate about the role of the International Criminal Court in Africa. While many are hopeful that the ICC will help prevent impunity for world leaders who coordinate and reward mass atrocities, others fear that the Court is simply a rejuvenated arm of neocolonialism. Those who adhere to the latter perspective use the fact that only African heads of state have been investigated as evidence of global racism. Supporters of the Court often highlight that most cases brought to the ICC’s attention were done so independently by African governments and in support of African victims.
These concerns are the very ones that were addressed head on at a meeting last November in Tanzania co-sponsored by the International Justice Project, International Refugee Rights Initiative, and the Pan-African Lawyers Union entitled “Renewing the Promise of the International Criminal Court: A Critical Review of the Court’s Role in Promoting Accountability in Africa.” It is only by engaging these intersecting concerns that the international community can hold both the Court and world perpetrators of genocide and crimes against humanity responsible.
As one tour guide and long time ANC member from Kwazula Natal stated: “Is the Court prejudice against Africa? Absolutely. Should Bashir face justice? Absolutely…We can do both. We can fix the Court and make sure murderers are punished. It’s not one or the other. It’s both.”