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Race, Colonialism, and the ICC: Reflections on Political Conversations across Cultures – Anna Floerke Scheid

Recently, I participated in an international and interdisciplinary conference entitled Transitional Justice in Post-Conflict Societies in Africa at the Hekima Institute of Peace Studies and International Relations (HIPSIR) at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa in Nairobi, Kenya. Nearly 300 scholars and practitioners, including theologians, political scientists, peace and human rights activists, international lawyers, and public officials from around the world, but especially across the African continent, participated in the conference. I am a North American scholar whose work frequently engages social, political, and religious components of African cultures. The opportunity to engage, in person, African scholars and practitioners of transitional justice was invaluable. I found myself particularly affected by two themes that arose in both formal (paper presentations) and informal (tea time) discussions with my fellow conference participants.

 1. Colonialism and its aftermath remains a very live issue across the continent of Africa.

It may not be particularly surprising that a conference focusing on conflict and peacebuilding across the African continent would include some discussion of colonialism, but I was struck by how much the theme of colonialism pervaded the entire conference. Nearly every presentation from scholars working on peace and justice issues in a multitude of disciplines and cultural and political contexts across Africa made reference to colonialism as a major complicating factor in political violence on the continent. The injustices and traumatization wreaked by European colonial projects remains in the forefront of the minds and hearts of many Africans. For European and North American readers, I think this demonstrates a couple of things.

First, it suggests that any foreign policies, theo-ethical analyses, or economic development projects that do not take very seriously the lingering wounds of colonialism are likely to be rejected or viewed with reasonable suspicion by many Africans. Second, in a related way, it was a reminder to me, especially as a white U.S. American, to consider very openly and seriously the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of historically marginalized groups in the U.S. This includes, but is not limited to, Native Americans (also victims of a European colonial project), and Black Americans, whose ongoing experience of racism is well documented across the social sciences. Most African nations won their independence from colonial powers in the 1960s at the same time that the U.S. Civil Rights Movement was most prominent, but they are still experiencing and confronting myriad negative social, political, and economic effects of colonialism. Africans know this both through experience and through the tools of social analysis. While I perceived it to be a dominant theme of the conference in Nairobi, I have encountered discussions of colonialism considerably less amongst my African friends and colleagues living in the U.S. I wonder if, like Americans of color giving voice to their experiences of racism, Africans living in the U.S. have learned to expect more suspicion and invalidation of their negative experiences of colonialism in the U.S. and Europe than in their home countries.

There is a clear parallel lesson to be learned here regarding race relations in the U.S. Here, people of color continue to experience the social, political, and economic effects of racism, just as Africans continue to cope with the negative effects of colonialism. Both systems were legally dismantled in the 1960s but continue to have practical and cultural effects. Moreover, Americans of color are, in the language of transitional justice and social reconciliation, truth-telling about racism, just as Africans are truth-telling about colonialism in their own contexts. In African nations the majority of people share the social experience of colonialism. However, in the U.S. the majority of citizens do not have personal experiences of structural racism; instead too many white Americans are not truth-listening when it comes to racism. Many continue to question and invalidate the ongoing negative experiences of Americans of color and the social data that point to those experiences. Likewise, insofar as domestic policy, theo-ethical analyses, and economic policies in the U.S. fail to take racism into account, they may find themselves rejected or viewed with reasonable suspicion by Americans of color.

 2. Question the dominant narrative on how Africans view the International Criminal Court.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) was a much discussed topic of conversation not only for its role in transitional justice but also due to the fact that the current President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, was appearing before the ICC during the conference on charges of crimes against humanity for his alleged role in the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya.

The dominant narrative that I typically hear in the U.S. suggests that a large majority of Africans object to the International Criminal Court and view it as a neocolonial construct that unfairly targets African leaders. Hence, Mwangi S. Kimenyi of the Brookings Institute suggests that, given President Kenyatta’s indictment, Africans are now calling the ICC the “International Colonial Court”.

But this doesn’t square with an Ipsos poll conducted this month that found that 67% of Kenyans think that their government should cooperate more with the ICC. Moreover, 56% of the population think that Kenya ought to remain a signatory to the Rome Statute once President Kenyatta’s trial is over. These numbers contradict the narrative that suggests large majorities of Africans reject the ICC.

The counter narrative of significant African support for the ICC was brought to my attention at the HIPSIR conference, where many of the participants argued that the anti-ICC narrative is forwarded by African political elites, rather than ordinary Africans. These elites, they suggested, are often precisely the people who come under scrutiny for violations of international law. Many conference participants voiced suspicion not of the ICC, but of the African Union (AU) which has declared current African heads of state immune from ICC prosecution. Makau Matua, a Kenyan-born human rights activist and law professor,* who served as a plenary speaker at the conference, referred to this declaration as a “pro-impunity clause.” He noted that it encourages African heads-of-state who have committed violations of international law to use more violence to remain in power so that they can retain their AU-supported immunity and avoid ICC prosecution.

In response to Matua’s plenary, Ambassador Sani Lawal Mohammed from the African Institute of International Law in Tanzania argued the AU position. Criminal justice, he contended, is typically dealt with at the level of the state. The ICC should deal only with crimes committed between and among states. The AU, he averred, is deeply committed to the fight against impunity for crimes against humanity. But with this rebuttal the questions remain: If criminal matters ought to be dealt with by the state only, and never the international community, then how do we handle human rights violations committed precisely by government officials who have the power to use the machinations of the state to protect themselves? What national government would have indicted and tried Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi while he was in power? In similar circumstances, isn’t this precisely what the ICC is supposed to do? It is important to note that this is also what over half of the population of Kenya wants the ICC to do in the case of President Uhuru Kenyatta.

To close, I note simply the importance of having conversations – both formal academic ones, and informal tea time talk – across boundaries. The most important lessons I took from HIPSIR seemed to be incumbent upon face-to-face interaction and conversation across cultures – in other words, I don’t think I would have learned these things if I had stayed home. It takes dialogue across borders to break into what people are really thinking beyond the potential barriers of race, space, power, and spin.

* I note that Professor Mutua has recently resigned from SUNY Buffalo Law school under a bevy of allegations. I do not intend to comment on those allegations here, nor either to support or accuse Professor Mutua in regards to these allegations.

Anna Floerke Scheid, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Duquesne University where she teaches and researches in the area of Christian social ethics with attention to the just war tradition, peacebuilding, and post-conflict forgiveness and reconciliation. She is currently researching and writing a book entitled Just Revolution: A Christian Ethic of Political Resistance and Social Transformation. Her work appears in the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, Horizons, and Teaching Theology and Religion.

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