The International Criminal Court’s encounter with its first suspect to voluntarily come to The Hague to face justice has not only given the court a much-needed morale boost, but also rewritten the tired old script of other accused that the ICC undermines peace efforts and no good will come from it.
Rebel leader Abu Garda is so far the only suspect to come to The Hague on a summons to appear basis, and volunteer himself with good grace. He is cooperating with the court, seemingly confident he will receive a fair trial, and says justice is desperately needed to bring peace to Darfur.
This is music to the ears of the ICC.
All of the court’s thirteen other suspects from Uganda, Sudan, the Central African Republic and Congo have been issued with arrest warrants – four of whom have been tracked down and apprehended.
The others have snubbed the ICC and managed to evade capture for years. Some have died since their arrest warrants were issued.
Those remaining fugitives continue to trot out the now predictable “peace versus justice” mantra, seeking to persuade the international community or victims in their own countries that prosecutions will stymie peace deals.
At his initial appearance on May 18, Garda rewrote the script.
He appeared calm as he introduced himself as the political commander of a resistance movement. He listened as the judge explained he was charged with war crimes, including attacking and killing African Union, AU, peacekeepers in Haskanita in 2007.
His group the United Resistance Front – formed when the Justice and Equality Movement fractured in 2007 – says it has reservations about the investigations and findings of the prosecutor, but has confidence in the independence and impartiality of the court.
His remarks are in complete contrast to the months of anti-ICC rhetoric spun by President Omar al-Bashir, also wanted by the court for atrocities in Darfur. He says the ICC has mounted a witch-hunt against him; is undermining and disrespecting Sudan’s national sovereignty; and could destabilise Africa. He insists he’ll never bow to what he describes as colonial-style western justice.
At one stage, his government threatened a return to hardline Islamic fundamentalism if its president was arrested.
Garda, on the other hand, represents a different way of thinking, savvy to the benefits of cooperating with the court.
A confirmation of charges hearing will begin on October 12 to determine whether there is enough evidence to proceed to trial, but until that decision is made Garda is a free man.
After his initial appearance, the URF held a press conference in a small marquee in an otherwise deserted car park ten minutes from the ICC.
Speaking from behind a piece of folder paper with his name scribbled in biro, Garda told journalists he was innocent of the charges against him, but that he was in The Hague because it is “very important for any honest leader to come and face justice” and that no-one is above the law.
Garda cleverly made the most of the opportunity of having the world’s media focused on him.
Unlike Bashir, who uses a censored Sudanese press to slam the ICC and downplay the scale of violence in Darfur, Garda seized the chance to tell journalists about the suffering of Darfuris, and that the situation is worsening daily.
“From here, we call the international community to put pressure on the government to bring back aid organisations to Darfur. If that doesn’t happen, real genocide will happen in Darfur because of famine,” he said.
In all of the ICC’s situation countries, justice has been downplayed in debates over how to achieve peace, and the court has been forced to stand by and listen as suspects vow never to sign peace deals while arrest warrants are on the table.
Doubts have been cast over whether the ICC will ever be able to apprehend suspects like Congolese rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda who has now been integrated into the army – a big snub to the court seeing as Congo is an ICC member state and supposed to help execute arrest warrants.
Garda has come along just at the right time for the ICC, telling the world that Darfur is struggling due to a lack of justice, and that appearing before the court is part of pushing the peace process forward, not backwards.
Proclaiming Garda’s innocence for the Haskanita attack, Tadjadine Bechir Niam, URF secretary for external affairs, told me that “the charge about killing peacekeepers will help to protect peacekeepers and humanitarian organisations.
“It will change the behaviour of governments as well as rebels, because they know they will be accountable one day or another.”
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.