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Is it a White Man’s Court?  I went to a talk recently in which the International Criminal Court, the ICC, was accused of racial bias.  The evidence seems pretty damning.  Virtually no non-African has been targeted by the Court.  Yet nobody believes Africa is the only continent in the world to experience grave war crimes.  The Chairman of the African Union, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, recently made a similar claim:  he talked of the ICC “hunting” Africans. 

The allegation is that consciously, or sub-consciously, the decision to prosecute Africans is driven by racial prejudice.  Now, this may or may not be true.  There may be all sorts of other reasons why almost all the indictees have been African.  However, let us suppose that it is true – that racism explains why Africans have been the almost-exclusive focus of the ICC.  Certainly many in Africa believe this to be the case.  And many take the further step of believing that therefore the ICC should be dismantled.

 A comparable issue arises in other contexts.  Thus, it is often said that the movement to boycott citizens and products from Israel is driven by anti-Semitism, since – critics of a boycott point out – there are countries with far worse human rights records than Israel, and these countries are not the target of boycott campaigns.  The additional claim is then made that this is a reason to oppose any boycott of Israel. 

 But is it? 

Let’s return to the ICC example.  Our motives for action are usually multifaceted.  Even if we accept that there’s some sort of bias in the ICC, it’s implausible to believe that it’s the only (or indeed main) motivation.  At least part of the motivation is the admirable quest for justice.  Everybody (or virtually everybody) believes that those who have committed war crimes should be caught and tried and punished.  So an honourable and a dishonourable motivation is combining to produce an outcome we approve of – that at least some tyrants are held to account. 

Nonetheless, moral inconsistencies in the actions of the ICC, or in boycott calls, may highlight prejudice and in so far as they do so, they stain the organization or movement in which the prejudice is exposed.  

The best remedy is the application of consistency.  Thus, with regard to the ICC there ought to be a non-prejudicial pursuit of human rights abusers in every corner of the world.  And were we to be convinced that a boycott against Israel was justified and would be effective in achieving certain worthy aims, then the response to critics who allege anti-Semitism would be a call for a boycott of other places where we believed this too would be legitimate and effective.

In the meantime, we have apparent inconsistencies.  One can imagine a world in which these were so glaring that we’d demand the ripping down of the whole edifice.  The ICC will only ever target a tiny number of people – those who are accused of the most heinous crimes.  We want mass murderers behind bars even if they are put behind bars partly because of their race.  But we couldn’t morally tolerate this for the entire criminal justice system, involving far more trivial crimes.  It seems to me that it would be better that no shoplifters were pursued by the courts than that only black shoplifters were. 

The ICC is not like this.  The balance is tipped by the seriousness of the crime.  It would not be better to have no war criminals behind bars than only Africans.     

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1 Comment on this post

  1. Maybe this isn’t especially relevant, but would the apparent racism of the ICC’s targeting of African war criminals be mitigated by the fact that the victims of African war criminals are largely African?* (If that is indeed a fact, it would seem likely though I don’t really know.) That would seem to suggest that the ICC is preoccupied with defending Africans from war criminals, though I suppose this could be taken to be an expression of a kind of racist paternalism, though I think that would be different from the kind of racism that sometimes motivates, say, the targeting of blacks by police and prosecutors in the United States.

    I guess the other side of this would be that if the ICC ignored war criminals in Africa, could it not perhaps be accused of being racist for ignoring the plight of African victims, just as police are sometimes accused of a sort of sexist prejudice for failing to seriously investigate the murders of prostitutes?

    *In thinking about the racism of the ICC it would be interesting to see how the race of the victims, not just the criminals, affects the ICC’s decisions. For instance, if a black African leader committed war crimes against some population of, say, white South Africans, would the ICC prosecute such crimes more vigorously than usual?

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