Reasons to be Cheerful: progress on international justice, arms control, economic and social rights and democracy in Africa

After Monday’s fairly depressing post, I thought I’d add some good news, from an unlikely source. Perhaps because it can break free from its heavy ideological baggage of laissez faire, the further the Economist strays from economics, the better it gets. This week’s issue has some really nuanced reporting on the impact of the International Criminal Court (ICC), on the cluster bomb treaty, and some good news (so far) on Ghana’s elections.

When the ICC indicts someone like Joseph Kony, the leader of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, opinion usually splits down the middle between those who say such indictments can obstruct the search for peace, and others who argue that justice must prevail, whatever the short term political difficulties, and that in the long run, such cases will deter future generations of rights violators. The Economist’s anonymous correspondent (for some reason it eschews bylines – v annoying) argues that the impact has been more subtle and positive than this, often leading to hybrid processes that combine the ICC with national judicial proceedings. Rather than replacing or undermining national processes, the ICC can actually strengthen them. This has already happened in Sierra Leone, with convictions and 50-year sentences being handed out for war crimes. Similar exercises are under way in the Lebanon (to try the alleged assassins of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri) and Cambodia and could happen in Uganda.

On the cluster bomb treaty, the magazine argues that even though the US, along with Russia and China, did not sign up to the treaty in Oslo on 4 December, the political price of using cluster bombs has risen even for non-signatories (e.g. what happens if the US wants to deploy them in a NATO operation, and allies such as Britain, Germany or France that have signed the treaty oppose the move?) A similar thing happened with the 1997 landmines treaty, which was effectively observed by some countries that hadn’t signed it.

Both stories highlight the way that international law, although often legalistic, obscure and hard to enforce in any rigorous way, can nevertheless influence behaviours at both national and international level.

 

On 10 December, exactly sixty years after the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and after several decades of work and campaigns by human rights NGOs, the UN General Assembly adopted, by consensus, an Optional Protocol to the International Covenant On Economic, Social And Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Not exactly front page (or any page) news, but it establishes an international complaint mechanism that will also help develop the content of ESC rights and related States’ obligations, as well as give guidance to national courts and human rights institutions. It could mark another stage in the drip drip effect of international rights legislation in shaping values, norms and national law, perhaps offering hope at the international level for victims who cannot get redress through their domestic legal system.

Finally, given all the setbacks following elections in Kenya and Zimbabwe this year, there was some good news from Ghana, where elections on 7 December (the president John Kufuor is standing down voluntarily after two terms, so he’s a shoo-in for the Mo Ibrahim prize) were peaceful and fair, and produced no overall majority, leading to a run off on 28 December between the two leading candidates, Nana Akufo-Addo of the ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP) and John Atta Mills of the National Democratic Congress (NDC). The run off will test Ghana’s democratic credentials to the full, as will a much more systemic challenge – the discovery of large deposits of offshore oil, due to come on stream by 2010.

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