Last Thursday, I spent a couple of hours on the tarmac of the airport in Lilongwe (Malawi’s capital) while in transit. From the plane window, I could just make out a column of SUVs and jet-black Mercedes pull up outside the airport where they were met by an honour guard in startling scarlet which had just paraded across the runway. I couldn’t see who got out, but the scene reminded me of a recent VIP who had stopped over in Malawi.
Tony Blair, when he is not making peace in the Middle East or instructing social democratic parties on how to compromise their values, apparently also runs an initiative in “good governance” in Africa, and Malawi was the latest country to be subjected to Blair’s wisdom on the issue—a bit like being lectured on tolerance by the Klan.
I thought of Blair again on Monday when I read an opinion piece in Kenya’s DailyNation, wherein a columnist, in the course of discussing the prospects of a “Kenyan Spring”, concluded that “the ICC question was settled at the ballot”. The “ICC question”, of course, refers to the fact that Kenya’s President (Uhuru Kenyatta) and Vice-President (William Ruto) stand accused of committing crimes against humanity during Kenya’s 2007-2008 election, which became bloodily contested.
The “ICC question” featured in the country’s election earlier this year when the U.S. and Britain warned that if Kenyans elected an indicted war criminal, there would be consequences. Their warning, however well-intended, backfired horribly (as any fool outside of the State Department could have told them it would), and fed into a narrative—not without foundation—about neo-colonialism in Africa, and the double-standard which applies to leaders on that continent and leaders in Europe and America. Indignant, some Kenyans, already smarting from last year’s hectoring by Hillary Clinton, saw the election as a way to show the U.S. that they will make their own decisions about their leadership.
While Kenyatta indicated after his victory that he would “cooperate” with the ICC, it seems clear now that he will not go to the Hague, and that some Kenyans (including the author of the column in question, Sam Chege, who writes from the diaspora via Kansas State) do in fact see the matter as “settled”.
But the mental lying that allows someone to believe that an election victory and the endorsement by the public somehow trumps or transcends ratified law is extraordinary indeed. No one is questioning the legitimacy of Kenyatta’s election victory. What people might justifiably question, however, is the origin of this belief that his victory wipes away any crimes which may or may not have been committed, and why that victory should derail a process, the fulfilment of which is of some interest to citizens of the Republic.
If in the aftermath of conflict, a country makes a process-based decision to offer some kind of amnesty, or to forgo the punishment of those who committed crimes, that is one thing. But Kenya pledged itself to a process of reconciliation which included a commitment to justice. And before they forged an alliance that cynics say was based around the quest for impunity that they hoped an election victory would signal, Kenyatta and Ruto had committed themselves to the ICC process.
As an American, I have a vested interest in this process—and not just because I study Kenya and visit the country from time to time. For Kenyatta and Ruto were right about at least one thing—there is a gross double standard at play. Engineering a kind of ethnic cleansing which claimed hundreds of lives is awful. But conspiring to incite a war based on lies, misrepresentations, and profiteering which levelled whole cities, cost the aggressor thousands of its soldiers killed and tens of thousands wounded, and killed upwards of 100,000 citizens of the occupied nation while destroying much of that nation’s infrastructure and governing apparatus is in an entirely different class. That this massive war of aggression was waged alongside another, secretive war, based on state terrorism, using torture, disappearance, rendition, and murder as everyday tools, only makes it worse.
The individuals who commissioned these crimes walk free. George W Bush lives in a Dallas suburb and when not painting himself naked in the bathtub, travels to Africa to atone for his sins. He was feted at a cervical cancer clinic in Zambia in June. [The day that he arrived in Livingstone, I ran into a Zambian in a shopping mall in Lusaka who was wearing a “Bush: War Criminal” t-shirt. I wrung his hand and thanked him. He looked at me like I was nuts.] Dick Cheney emerges periodically from Mordor, snarling at the cameras and making political speeches, usually in support of U.S. terrorism, but more recently in support of his neoconservative daughter’s senate bid. Condoleeza Rice teaches at Stanford. I would suggest that she teach a course called Impunity 101 were her very presence on a university campus not already sufficient proof of our nation’s capacity to absolve our leaders of their criminal behaviour (and it sometimes seems, the more spectacular the crime, the more easily it is forgiven). Berkeley is not blameless, as we host John Yoo (he literally re-wrote the law on torture), who at least has to suffer the indignity of having his classes go mobile across a series of undisclosed locations during the semester to evade protesters. Donald Rumsfeld haunts the airwaves from time to time, and has published a predictably self-serving memoir.
None of them are as visible as Tony Blair, who has fingers in a dozen different pies—the common feature being that they keep him in the limelight and make him lots and lots of money—and is utterly unrepentant about the cover his falsifications of intelligence gave the naked aggression of the Bush Administration. He made a bid for the Presidency of the European Union and, one suspects, fantasises about returning to lead the Labour Party. Geoff Hoon, Britain’s Defence Secretary, retreated to the corporate world to advise weapons companies. Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, presides over Pembroke College at Cambridge (I boycotted events where I was in danger of having to share the room with him whilst living at Pembroke...having to forego formal dinners broke my heart). And Alistair Campbell, Blair’s spin-doctor, is on-call from the Labour Party to advise on election matters.
Not all of us have given up on the hope that someday these individuals who manufactured the case for a horrific war—the consequences of which are still felt daily by Iraqis even though for those Americans who didn’t lose friends or families it is nearly forgotten—and unleashed a campaign of terrorism on people in the Middle East and South Asia using all the power of the Anglo-American military and intelligence services might someday face justice (Malawians were urged to arrest Blair when he visited lastmonth).
The fact that these men and women walk free today is indeed indicative of the double-standard that exists in international justice. But it does not cleanse Kenyatta and Ruto’s hands of any blood they might have been caused to be shed. Surely the lesson to be learned from this state of affairs is not that impunity needs to be deepened and extended around the world. Rather, the remit, capabilities, and integrity of the ICC and similar institutions should be strengthened, and U.S. citizens should insist that their leaders (including our current President, who has continued and even escalated Bush’s War of Terror, while extending the creeping tendencies of the security state at home) not be allowed to kill in our name with impunity.
And so I hope, for the sake of the United States as much as for their own country, that Kenyans can see that election propaganda by either side is no substitute for deliberations over evidence, that a ballot is not the same as a trial, and that acclamation by voters is not the same as absolution by a court. If Kenyatta and Ruto desire vindication, they should subject themselves to the process that we in the United States and Britain can, for now, only dream might someday be applied to those who led our nation so far astray into such bloody waters. In short, Kenya’s example could serve as an inspiration for the reinvigoration of justice in the United States and Britain.