Three years ago I was in Abuja, Nigeria, at a lecture given by Justice Richard Goldstone, the first chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. He talked about preventing and prosecuting crimes against humanity.
During the question period, a member of the audience stood up. His arms had been amputated. His voice trembled with anger as he asked a piercing question: "How can the Nigerian government protect Charles Taylor from justice?"
Taylor, the disgraced former president of Liberia, had been responsible for a campaign of mutilation, rape and mass killing in Sierra Leone. Indicted for war crimes by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Taylor fled to Nigeria in 2003, where he was granted asylum and lived in considerable comfort.
The incident moved me deeply and convinced me of a principle: The voice of victims seeking justice must be heard above the negotiations of politicians and diplomats. Peace without justice is no peace at all.
This principle is once more being tested as the UN Security Council considers whether to suspend proceedings against the president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, by the International Criminal Court.
The mass atrocities in Darfur shocked the conscience of the world. On March 31, 2005, the Security Council responded, referring the situation to the ICC—a move that gave hope that the perpetrators would be held to account.
After careful investigation, the prosecutor of the ICC announced this year that he would seek an arrest warrant for Bashir. The allegations included war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. At once, the government of Sudan launched a diplomatic campaign to end the legal process.
According to the court, the council has the right to suspend any ICC proceedings for up to 12 months, renewable. The court assumes that any such action would be to promote peace.
Sudan has apparently persuaded almost half of the council to support suspension. In July, Libya and South Africa amended a resolution renewing the UN-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur to express concern about the actions of the prosecutor. They were supported by China, though—to its credit—not by the U.S.
Objections to action against Bashir are not limited to the Security Council. Both the African Union and the Organization of the Islamic Conference have demanded a suspension; it is feared that some of their members may even withdraw from the ICC.
Opponents contend that proceeding against Bashir would interfere with the peace process in Darfur—the same claim used against the indictment of Charles Taylor.
That argument does not convince. Taylor's indictment was unsealed by the Special Court for Sierra Leone at a sensitive moment—just as he was arriving for peace talks in Ghana. Many diplomats greeted the news of the indictment with frustration and anger, convinced that it would spark attacks in Liberia and thwart the peace process. The feared retaliatory violence never materialized. No matter how they felt at the time, those who took part in the negotiations now agree that, because Taylor was removed from the peace talks, the indictment contributed to their success.
Peace talks in Sudan are stalled while Bashir plays for time. Allowing the legal process against him to move forward is unlikely to make the unpromising diplomatic situation worse, and could provide leverage to speed a resolution.
Three million people in Darfur have been forced from their homes, perhaps 400,000 killed. If there is to be peace, there must be justice for the victims as well as a diplomatic resolution to the conflict.
The Security Council should not stand in the way of the ICC. To do so would undermine the fledgling system of international justice, may not advance peace in Darfur and would betray those who have suffered terrible crimes.
The victims of Darfur deserve to be heard as they ask: "How can the Security Council protect Omar al-Bashir from justice?"