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Selling justice short: Why accountability matters for peace

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I. Overview

The long-running debate about whether seeking justice for grave international crimes interferes with prospects for peace has intensified as the possibility of national leaders being brought to trial for human rights violations becomes more likely. The International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, which is mandated to investigate and prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, has already issued its first arrest warrant for a sitting head of state-Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir. That the ICC operates while armed conflicts are ongoing fuels the justice and peace debate. The temptation to suspend justice in exchange for promises to end a conflict has already arisen with respect to the ICC's work in Darfur and Uganda, and threatens to recur in coming years as parties and mediators struggle to negotiate peace deals.

With the functioning of international criminal courts, national tribunals, and, increasingly, trials abroad, the context of amnesty discussions is already very different from several years ago. It is now generally recognized that international law obligates countries to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. International tribunals and national courts applying universal jurisdiction are likely to reject de jure amnesties for the most serious human rights abuses. The trials of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and Liberia's Charles Taylor demonstrate that insulation from prosecution is no longer a certainty for former heads of state. The expectations of victims for justice have changed in this evolving context.(1)

At the same time, some diplomats tasked with negotiating peace agreements have argued that the prospect of prosecution by the ICC has made achieving their objectives more difficult. Those negotiating peace have tended to view the possibility of prosecution as a dangerous and unfortunate obstacle to their work. Some fear that merely raising the specter of prosecution will bring an end to fragile peace talks. Facing understandable pressure to resolve an armed conflict, negotiators and others often feel pressed to push justice to one side.

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