The ICC Is Not Racist

The Brexit storm has battered the European Union. Since the United Kingdom voted “leave” in June, international observers have wondered whether other members will follow suit. The stability of the organization has been called into question. So far, however, no other European country has shown any sign of following the lead of the United Kingdom. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is not so lucky.

Over the course of the last two weeks, three countries have announced their intentions to leave the ICC, and it is likely that many more “exits” lay ahead. It started with Burundi, which last week decided to withdraw from the organization. It was followed a few days later by South Africa and the next week by the Gambia. Of the 124 countries that signed the Rome Statute—the document that established the ICC—dozens, all of them in Africa, have expressed interest in leaving.

An mass exodus of African nations would be a major blow to the ICC
This map shows the member states of the ICC. Countries in green are members; countries in red are not. A mass exodus of African nations would be a major blow to the organization.

At this point, you may be wondering what exactly it is that the ICC does. The International Criminal Court is the world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal. Its job is to prosecute individuals accused of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide, and its function is similar to that of the Nuremburg Trials following the Second World War, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia following the Yugoslav Wars, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda following the Rwandan genocide. The ICC was established in 2002 as the international community recognized the need for a permanent tribunal.

Since its foundation, however, it has come under increasing criticism from African governments. Last January, the ICC was widely criticized during the summit of the African Union. During the summit, the President of Kenya submitted a proposal that the AU develop a roadmap for a mass withdrawal from the ICC. Later, in May, Uganda’s president called the ICC “a bunch of useless people” during his inauguration, causing a number of Western diplomats to abruptly walk out of the ceremony. Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president who currently has a warrant for his arrest issued by the ICC, attended the inauguration ceremony. According to the ICC, he should have been detained—but he was not.

If dozens of countries are considering withdrawing, the level of animosity must be extreme. But why? Why is the organization so hated by African leaders? According to its detractors, the ICC is a racist organization. To date, it has issued arrest warrants for 39 individuals. All of them have been Africans. This has many African leaders asking why the ICC has not investigated activities of the United States and United Kingdom in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, the court has been accused of anti-Africa bias, racism, and even neo-colonialism. Leaders have gone so far as to accuse it of acting as a Western tool for meddling in domestic African affairs.

Are these accusations fair? Well, a little bit. But not very. It is certainly fair to criticize the court for lack of involvement in continents besides Africa, but to call it neo-colonial or racist is unjustifiable. For one, five of the eight African countries that were brought before the court were self-referred, meaning their governments willingly sought the assistance of the court’s institutions. Furthermore, the court seems to recognize its problematic focus on Africa. Of its ten current preliminary investigations, six involve countries outside of Africa—including one that is investigating the role of the United Kingdom in Iraq. It’s also important to consider that many of the the non-African countries that the ICC would normally investigate are not part of the organization. The United States never ratified the Rome Statute and is therefore one of these countries that cannot be prosecuted.  Finally, the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, is from the Gambia. Thus the court is not composed of Western officials going after African officials as is often portrayed. Rather, it is composed officials from around the world going after justice on every continent.

Besides the fact that the court’s activities offer a blow to the argument of racism, so too does the uncomfortable fact that many of the worlds existing crimes against humanity occur in Africa, and a handful of African leaders are running from their responsibility for these crimes. Burundi offers a prime example. When the president of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, announced that he would run for a third term despite a constitutional ban on doing so, he brought his country to the brink of civil war. Hundreds were killed and hundreds of thousands fled their homes. Now, Nkurunziza’s government has withdrawn from the ICC. Whether crimes were committed by the government, rebel groups, or individuals is beside the point. Thanks to the decision of the Burundian government, the victims of the recent violence will forever remain without justice. While leaders may claim to be leaving the ICC over racism, a subconscious (or maybe conscious in some cases) instinct of self-preservation may also be affecting their judgment.

Africa remains the world’s least developed continent. As a result, a handful of countries are or have recently been marred by some degree of violence. And a few of the perpetrators are most certainly still in power. Thus we can come to a simple conclusion: the ICC is heavily involved in Africa because more ICC member-states are plagued with violence in Africa than ICC member-states on other continents. To many, such an assertion would be seen as racist. But it isn’t. It’s simply true.

Not everyone is buying the narrative of racism. The government of Botswana, one of Africa’s most democratic countries, has repeatedly voiced its support for the ICC. And Fatou Bensouda, unlike the government of her home country, is not going to turn a blind eye to justice. As she put it, “We say that the ICC is targeting Africans, but all of the victims in our cases in Africa are African victims.” While it may not be fair that the ICC has not pursued more cases outside Africa, African leaders are still responsible for committing war crimes, and they should still be punished for doing so. The international community should not let empty accusations of racism from African leaders prevent it from honoring its duty to African victims.

Kyrgyzstan’s Missing Constitution

The Kyrgyz government has lost its constitution. No, not figuratively, but literally. While debating whether or not to hold a referendum that would amend the current constitution, they discovered that no one actually knew where the original version of the document is stored. The presidential administration had assumed that the original was held by the Justice Ministry, and the Justice Ministry had assumed that the original was held by the presidential administration. So the government of Kyrgyzstan seems to have found itself in a humorous situation. Yet the context in which this discovery was made—the debate over possible changes to the missing constitution—is by no means a laughing matter.

Yesterday, when it was realized that the constitution was missing, the Kyrgyz parliament voted to hold a referendum on December 11. The purpose of the referendum is to seek popular approval of proposed changes to the current constitution. These changes would weaken the office of the president and strengthen the office of the prime minister.

Kyrgyzstan is governed by a political system under which the president is the head of state and the prime minister is the head of government. In practice, this means that the president is already much weaker than in other central Asian states where the leader is free to exercise autocratic power. Unlike the autocratic political systems of its neighbors, the Kyrgyz political system was completely redesigned in 2010 with the objective of preventing the rise of an dictator.

The reason that Kyrgyzstan weakened its presidency in 2010 was that it had recently experienced months of ethnic violence following the ouster of its previous president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has seen little progress and has remained impoverished. In 2010, the people became disillusioned by what they perceived as the increasing authoritarianism and corruption of the Bakiyev administration. As the cries of the protesters grew louder, Bakiyev tendered his resignation and fled to Kazakhstan. His supporters in the southern Kyrgyzstan became infuriated. This infuriation was heightened when the new interim government appealed to the sizable Uzbek minority of southern Kyrgyzstan. As a result, the Kyrgyz and Uzbek inhabitants of the region turned against each other, resulting in catastrophic ethnic violence.

The ethnic violence was concentrated around the southern city of Osh.

It was in this context—of violent ethnic instability—that the 2010 constitution was promulgated. Bakiyev had previously expanded his own powers in 2007, prompting accusations that he was turning towards authoritarianism. Thus in 2010, a constitution was drafted that would prevent the same thing from happening again. The 2010 constitution created a semi-presidential system under which the president was limited by the power of the parliament and prime minister. In 2011, Almazbek Atambayev was elected the president. Since then, the country has been free from the violence that brought it to the brink of civil war in 2010. 

Why, then, after years of stability, is Kyrgyzstan again fiddling with its constitution? And why would it weaken an already weak office? Well, it turns out that the answer to the first question goes a long way in explaining the second. Next year, Kyrgyzstan will hold a presidential election. That is why the changes are being made now. Atambayev is not allowed to run for a second term, but he is allowed to become prime minister. As a result, his opponents assert that he is attempting to strengthen the powers of the prime minister so he can take up that role after he leaves the presidency.

The same trend has been seen in Russia and Turkey. When Vladimir Putin was barred from running for president in 2008, his closest political ally, Dmitry Medvedev, was elected president. This meant that, behind closed doors, it was Putin who continued to pull the strings as prime minister until he was eligible to run for president again. When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was prime minister, he was the most powerful politician in Turkey. When he was forced into the presidency, however, Turkey transitioned to a presidential system.

Thus Atambayev’s opponents accuse him of going in the same direction as the autocratic Presidents of Kyrgyzstan’s central Asian neighbors. Instead of becoming an autocratic president, however, they accuse him of trying to become an autocratic prime minister. Despite the fact that the prime-ministership was originally strengthened to weaken the pre-2010 presidency, a further weakened presidency would create a prime-ministership that approaches the power of the pre-2010 presidency. Atambayev, however, has denied that he will attempt to become prime minister.

Kyrgyzstan and its autocratic neighbors
Kyrgyzstan and its autocratic neighbors

In truth, the changes to the constitution will likely have little effect on Kyrgyzstan’s political culture. Why? Because the proposed changes are meant to facilitate the very same political jockeying that characterizes the current system of government. According the Freedom House, “political parties [in Kyrgyzstan] are primarily vehicles for a handful of strong personalities, rather than mass organizations with clear ideologies and political platforms.” Thus Kyrgyzstan’s political system is dominated by a group of individuals who are all vying for the top position. It is based on a mutual recognition that the power of the leader is limited in order to give everyone a chance to become the leader. Whether that leader is called the president or the prime minister is of little consequence to whoever reaches the top.

The reason that the distinction between president and prime minister matters lies with the parliament. The difference between a president and a prime minister is that a president is elected by the people while a prime minister is appointed by parliament. Thus the true function of the constitutional changes—and the reason why it is backed by a healthy majority of the parliament—is to take the power of choosing the leader out of the hands of the people and into the hands of the political elite. Since the semi-presidential system is designed to open the top spot to every ambitious politician, the political elites want to mitigate the risk of a violent political fight by bringing that fight out of the streets and into the chambers of parliament.

The post-2010 political system was not intended to save the people from a dictator; it was intended to save the political elite from a dictator. As a result, the changes are not likely to usher in an autocracy. They are, however, likely to facilitate the political elite’s game of thrones. Thus it’s no surprise that Kyrgyzstan’s parliament only discovered that its own constitution was missing when they tried to change it. Kyrgyz politicians are motivated and limited not by a constitution, but by their own ambitions and and the competing ambitions of their opponents. For that reason, they don’t really care about what’s written in the constitution until they see an opportunity to achieve their own political aims.

Why Ethnic Fissures are Undermining Ethiopia’s Developmental State

Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous country and its fastest growing economy. By aggressively pursuing a state-led model of development similar to that of China, Ethiopia’s government is attempting to maintain an annual growth rate of around 10%. This, in theory, should be lifting millions out of poverty. Yet the ethnically-charged violence that has plagued the country over the last few weeks paints a far bleaker picture. This violence, which is caused by a feeling of disenfranchisement among Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups, is indicative of the cracks that are starting to appear at the foundation of the country’s developmental state.

For months, the Oromo people–Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group–have been protesting against the government in Addis Ababa. The protests began last November with a plan to expand the capital region into Oromo territory. Feyisa Lilesa, an Oromo marathon runner, crossed his arms in protest as he took second place in the Rio Olympics. He told the press that “The Ethiopian government are killing the Oromo people and taking their land and resources.” On October 2, an anti-government protest was held during a religious festival in the Oromia region. 52 protesters were killed when security forces opened fire. In the meantime, protests have spread to the Amhara region, home to Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group. In light of these protests, the government declared a state of emergency last week that gives the already powerful government even greater authority.

Ethiopia is divided into 9 regions–each is dominated by a certain ethnic group.
Ethiopia is divided into 9 regions. Each is dominated by a certain ethnic group.

One of the government’s primary fears is that recent protests are endangering its developmental program. Like in many East Asian countries during the 20th century, the state exercises enormous influence over the economy. It is following a model under which the state pours investment into certain key industries, and the results have been positive so far. As protesters target assets owned by foreign firms, however, there are fears that foreign investments will dry up. So if the government is pursuing a form of development that has served countries like South Korea and China so well, why are the people protesting? Well, there are historical and economic factors that mean Ethiopia’s model of the developmental state has caused major resentment among the Oromo and Amhara people.

The current government came to power in 1991 following a brutal civil war. After Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in 1974, a communist junta called the Derg was established. Under the leadership of the Derg, insurgencies sprung up across the country. A massive famine in the 1980s caused millions of deaths. Eritrea’s war of independence and an invasion by Somalia further weakened the Derg’s hold on power. In this context, a rebel group called the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) began to fight against the Derg in the Tigray region. Eventually, it became the dominant member of a coalition called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). In 1991, the EPRDF overthrew the Derg and assumed its position at the head of the Ethiopian goverment–a role that it has maintained until today.

The TPLF domination of the EPRDF means that the government is dominated by the Tigray ethnic group–which constitutes only 6% of Ethiopia’s population. Thus the Oromo and Amhara–which make up around 34% and 27% of the country, respectively–have little representation while the Tigray are extremely powerful. Now let’s connect the dots. If development is largely driven by the state and the state is dominated by the Tigray, this means that the gains from development have disproportionately benefitted the Tigray while the Oromo and Amhara have remained steeped in poverty.

That dynamic–under which one ethnic minority largely controls the economic trajectory of the country–is the fundamental structural problem of Ethiopia’s developmental state. It is a significant reason why Ethiopia is unlike South Korea, China, or Taiwan, and it presents an existential threat to the country’s path of development.

Like in Ethiopia, the almost miraculous development of the Four Asian Tigers and China occurred largely at the hands of authoritarian leaders and their cronies. Because general population benefitted from rising standards of living, however, the people allowed the status quo to continue enriching their countries even though it disproportionally benefitted the upper class. But in Ethiopia, the upper class is not just a group of politically well-connected individuals. It is a group of politically well-connected individuals who all belong to the same ethnic group. That is a recipe for ethnically-charged resentment, and it is why protests are sweeping across Oromia and the Amhara region.

Many of the Oromo and Amhara protesters are calling for a representative democracy that will grant them independence from the Tigray elite. Yet a democracy would completely undermine Ethiopia’s developmental state, as the heavy hand of the government is a necessary part of its model of development. If the Tigray elite wishes to continue with its authoritarian developmental vision–and it should, because it has made significant progress so far–it needs to end the marginalization of the Oromo and the Amhara. While it does not yet need to transition to democracy, it does need to show the people that wealth is not just open to the Tigray. It needs to construct a powerful Oromo and Amhara elite that can buy into Ethiopia’s current economic and political model alongside the Tigray. If the elite can overcome ethnic boundaries, the people will follow. Otherwise, resentment will continue to mount, and the entire developmental state will be at risk of destruction.

The Philippines After 100 Days of Duterte

On June 30 2016, Rodrigo Duterte was elected the 16th president of the Philippines. That means that this Saturday, 8 October 2016, marks his 100th day in office. Over the course of these past 100 days, Duterte has become controversial as a result of his incendiary statements and support for extrajudicial killings of drug users. By examining why Duterte managed to pull off a victory last summer, it is possible to identify an important force that has defined domestic and foreign policy of his first 100 days in office.

He has compared himself to Hitler, stating that he would be happy to massacre millions of drug users. He has called Barack Obama a “son of a bitch” and has told him to “go to hell.” He has threatened to turn away from the United States and towards China and Russia. He has called Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, a “fool.” For such a crass candidate to be elected, it is natural to postulate that perhaps his opponents had even greater flaws. Let’s see how he stacks up to his opponents, many of whom were leading in the polls for much of the race.

At first, Jejomar Binay was the favorite. He had been the Vice President under former president Benigno Aquino III. He was the first to declare his candidacy and as a result held first place in early polls. Over time, however, his candidacy began to unravel in the face of corruption allegations. His performance in the polls began to waver, and once his popularity started falling it never stopped. He finished 4th place in the election.

Of all the candidates, Grace Poe performed the best in the early polls. Although she is a member of the senate, she is considered more of a political outsider than Binay. She has been a member of the senate only since 2013 and ran as an independent. As election date neared, however, Duterte overtook Poe in the polls. While she continued to lead against the second place candidate, Mar Roxas, she nevertheless lost to him narrowly to take third place.

Like Binay, Mar Roxas is a member of the political establishment. He was one of the most experienced candidates. He was the nominee of the Liberal Party, which is led by Aquino. As a result, he is viewed by many as a “traditional politician” who sacrifices principles and authenticity in order to win votes. For that reason, he trailed the less experienced Poe in the polls for much of the race. Nevertheless, he surpassed her to win second in the race. His reputation as a traditional politician, however, still kept him from taking first.

Besides Binay’s corruption, there appears to be little wrong with these candidates. Poe and Roxas were both qualified to be President, and neither approached the abrasiveness of Duterte. Thus Duterte’s victory cannot be explained by the shortcomings of his political opponents. So what does explain it? It turns out that the explanation while be quite familiar to readers in The West.

An analysis of polling shows that the “traditional politicians”–Binay and Roxas–were not popular with the people. Poe and Duterte, on the other hand, were seen as freer from the constraints of traditional politics. Duterte, with his outlandishly apolitical remarks, even more so than Poe. As a result, he won the trust of 91 percent of the Philippine people. Sound familiar?

This narrative is one that is playing out across The West. The people are rejecting establishment candidates in favor of apolitical politicians. Voters punish political experience and reward honesty. Just as in the United States, where Hillary Clinton is seen as untrustworthy and Trump’s unapologetic hyperbole gives him an aura of authenticity, Duterte’s rejection of the political orthodoxy gave him an advantage over his opponents. So if Duterte’s appeal is largely based off of his outsider status, how has this affected his first 100 days in office?

The Philippine claims in the South China Sea mean that cooperation with the United States is much easier than cooperation with China
The Philippine claims in the South China Sea mean that cooperation with the United States is much easier than cooperation with China

Duterte has delivered on his single biggest issue–his war on drugs. Tens of thousands of drug users and dealers have been arrested, and roughly 3600 have been killed. Thus Duterte is not all bark; he has shown some bite as well. Yet some of his most controversial statements should be taken with a grain of salt. The Obama administration, for example, has largely downplayed his threats to pivot towards China and Russia. Especially considering Philippine interests in the South China Sea, the alliance between the Philippines and the United States remains as important as ever. Thus while Duterte may be in favor of pursuing more independent foreign relations, much of the political and military establishment is against any significant changes.

Clearly, Duterte’s outsider status has had a significant effect on his domestic policy. But while his unorthodox ways have dented the Philippines’ international reputation, it is precisely in international affairs that establishment ideas continue to reign supreme. Thus the first 100 days of Duterte have seen many of his outlandish promises fulfilled domestically, but the unpopularity of his incendiary remarks within the foreign policy establishment means that the damage to international relations is more to reputation than to actual diplomatic ties.