The problem isn’t the ICC; it’s all those human rights violations

I have to highlight this bit of wisdom in Making Sense of Darfur from University of Minnesota political science professor Kathryn Sikkink. Writing on what she calls “trial skepticism” — manifesting itself in Sudan as the frequently over-the-top convictionthat ICC prosecution of top government officials will irrevocably endanger peace and security — Sikkink correctly identifies a profound blurring in popular commentary of the real problem underlying the dynamics in Sudan.

What the trial skepticism leads us to forget at times is that the problem is not the ICC, or the indictments per se. The problem is a president capable of blackmailing the international community by threatening to kill international peacekeepers or aid workers if faced with the possibility of prosecution. The rise of legal accountability for past human rights violations is one part of a solution to this problem. The transition to this system of legal accountability for past human rights violations will not be easy, and the Sudanese case falls directly in the middle of this transition. We do not know how the case will turn out. But past cases at least suggest that the threat of legal accountability has not worsened already complex human rights situations and may in the long run contribute the improving them.

Like I’ve said before, such transitions are not linear. Each new case presents new complexities, new difficulties, and new reasons to be pessimistic. But it helps to look at the decision to attempt to indict Omar al-Bashir not as an end, but as a potential beginning — or at least somewhere muddled in the middle.