Purohit & Atallah: International Justice Systems and the Muslim World: Why Bashir is Wrong

Raj Purohit and Amjad Atallah write in a guest op-ed for IC:

If the International Criminal Court (ICC) issues an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in February, it will certainly be met by a volley of criticism from the accused as he continues to frame the ICC as a tool of the west in its fight against the Muslim world. Al-Bashir can be expected to use the world-wide revulsion over the civilian deaths in the Gaza Strip to deflect attention from his own crimes.

Human rights activists, however, should not cede ground to Mr. al-Bashir and his allies on this issue; instead they should embrace a debate centered on the relationship between international justice and the Arab and Muslim worlds while maintaining a moral consistency across every conflict that highlights the inviolability of every civilian life.
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In fact, current developments within the international justice system paint a more complex picture than the one illustrated by Mr. Bashir. While it is true that the accused in this instance is a Muslim, his supporters try to ignore the fact that the victims of his actions are entirely Muslim civilians living in the Darfur region of Sudan.

Beyond Darfur and the ICC, a crucial part of the debate around international justice and the Muslim world should be centered on the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). At present the ICTY is conducting a trial of the Bosnian Serb ultranationalist Radovan Karadzic, who was the chief architect of the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia during the Yugoslav war in the mid 1990’s. Karadzic’s victims were primarily Bosnian Muslim civilians, but included Bosnian and Croatian Catholics, as well as other supporters of a multi-ethnic state.

Sudan/Darfur and Yugoslavia/Bosnia; the victims in each case share at least one commonality, they are primarily Muslim, a fact that does not fit the narrative of al-Bashir and his sympathizers. So does the fact that these two tribunals are responding to crimes against Muslims prove that Mr. Bashir is wrong and consequently negate the need for a dialogue? Hardly.

The work of these tribunals should be the entry point for both rebutting the likes of Mr. Bashir and for a more holistic discussion of why his comments are received with such credence in the Muslim world. It is important to note that Muslim critics are not attacking the concept of justice itself, but the concept of selective justice. An international justice mechanism, for example, that fails to take note when a government is engaged in war-crimes if it is allied with major western powers would be hard pressed to be taken seriously as an objective court.

Mr. Bashir has effectively manipulated those concerns with some success. Illustratively, the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) called an emergency meeting after the ICC prosecutor announced that he was targeting Mr. Bashir. The OIC responded by calling for the case to be suspended and noted, in part, that the ICC’s credibility would be challenged by “any kind of selectivity and double standards in the application of principles of criminal justice…”

To respond to such sentiments, international justice activists must respond by painting a more complete picture of tribunal activity, take steps to bring the issue of justice closer to the victims, and specifically discuss how alleged limitations in objectively addressing crimes can be overcome. But they also need to point out the fallacy at the heart of the OIC complaint.

There is an obvious absurdity to the argument that as long as anyone can commit a war-crime, everyone should be allowed to commit a war-crime. For example, if there are crimes that the OIC believes need to be investigated, those countries should sign and ratify the Rome Statute, and bring evidence of these crimes to the attention of prosecutors. Only if they were ignored can they make the argument that the process is fundamentally unfair.

It is important to recognize that a true breakthrough in the way in which international justice systems are viewed, and function, may require more time and more cases. Perhaps we will need to wait until the public in the Muslim world see more cases that do not involve those who share their faith, or see cases of leaders allied with major powers brought forward.

It might take ICC cases from countries such as Colombia and Georgia to illustrate that these tribunals are global in nature and can be part of the solution. But in the meantime, justice activists need to point out that even if every war criminal in the world is not brought to justice immediately, there is importance in beginning the process. And if the majority of victims of those who are indicted are Muslim, then Muslim leaders should be among the first to provide support to these international mechanisms, not become apologists for the Karadzics and Bashirs of the world.

Raj is the Founder and CEO of the Atrocity Response Community and Amjad is the Director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation

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