International Justice, Local Injustice

International Justice, Local Injustice

The International Criminal Court in Northern Uganda

When the International Criminal Court announced in January 2004 that its landmark first investigation would be into the brutal war in Northern Uganda, the statement was met with widespread and passionate condemnation from within the East African country. For perhaps the first time in the history of international law, however, those opposing the enforcement of humanitarian and human rights law were not self-interested government officials or rebel leaders. Instead, the protests came from the Ugandan human rights community itself, from activists, lawyers, and civil-society organizations working for peace in the North. This apparent paradox is explicable only by situating it in the ICC’s current predicament, in the history of the Ugandan war, and in the broader dilemma of merging international and local justice, or reconciling the demands of justice and the demands of peace.

Proposals for an international criminal court have circulated for more than half a century. In the wake of the Nuremburg Trials after the Second World War, jurists began working on plans for a permanent court that would prosecute individuals-as opposed to states, the traditional subjects of international law-for crimes against humanity, crimes against the peace, and genocide. But the cold war ushered in a long period of paralysis for the institutional development of international law, and it was not until the 1990s that the idea was again taken seriously. In response to a powerful international lobbying effort, the Rome Statute constituting the International Criminal Court was signed by 120 countries on July 17, 1998, with only seven votes in opposition, including the United States and, reportedly, China, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, and Sudan. The Statute received its sixtieth state ratification in April of 2002, and thereby entered into force.

However, the Court that has emerged today is far removed from the juristic dream of a court with universal jurisdiction and enforcement powers, the primary organ of a global rule of law. The United States delivered the first blow by asserting that its nationals would not be subject to prosecution by the Court. It subsequently pressed many allied and dependent states to sign bilateral immunity agreements, creating an expanding geography of legal impunity. The Court’s legitimacy was further undermined when the United States rejected it as a venue for the trial of those accused of planning the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath, whether suspected terrorists or Afghani or Iraqi officials charged with war crimes.
The ICC thus began casting about for a case that could prove its relevance and utility. When Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni approached the special prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, to ask him to investigate the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group that has terrorized Northern Uganda since the late 1980s, Moreno-Ocampo accepted. On January 29, the Office of the P...

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