Are Africans geopolitical pawns that the world can use arbitrarily when it feels the need to purge its conscience and purport to protect humanity? Are Africans the only “savages” that need to be rescued? Are there no atrocities committed outside Africa that ought to attract the interest of the world?
Most fundamentally, if Syria were Zimbabwe, would the conflict be over by now?
International inaction over the Syrian crisis would suggest that all these questions may be answered in the affirmative.
If Syria were Zimbabwe, the conflict would have automatically assumed a different complexion – NATO would have enforced a no-fly zone. The Security Council would have sat immediately to authorise a coalition of the willing to adopt ‘all necessary measures’ to maintain international peace and security in the area, in addition to referring the matter to the International Criminal Court. The International Criminal Court for its part would be working round the clock to put together arrest warrants for alleged perpetrators of violations of international criminal law. It is more than likely that Bashar al-Assad would have been dead by now – US Special Forces, the usual story.
Of course, this is not to suggest that there shouldn’t be accountability for atrocities if they are committed in Zimbabwe, or elsewhere in Africa. They must. However, if international law principles are applied as selectively as they have been over the last decade, do we not run the risk that their legitimacy will be undermined?
To illustrate the point: During times of political unrest over the last ten years in Zimbabwe, the international community has reacted as though a Third World War was imminent. Some have (quite ridiculously) gone as far as to suggest military intervention to resolve the crisis in the country. Yet so far, there have been 15,000 casualties in Syria and we have not seen the usual hypertensive excitement from the so-called protectors of humanity. Irrespective of the geopolitical arguments that have been raised to support international inaction in Syria, the argument that Africa has become the test-tube the world uses to try out its ‘save the world’ notions and international law principles is becoming more and more irresistible.
Does international humanitarian law apply to armed conflicts or doesn’t it? Does international criminal law apply to all perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity or doesn’t it? Do we have a Responsibility to Protect humanity from mass atrocities or don’t we?
The answers to these fundamental international law questions ought to be uniform, regardless of whether an armed conflict is taking place in Zimbabwe, Syria or anywhere else in the world. To do otherwise would lend credence to the school of thought that moves that international law is designed as a neo-colonial instrument applicable to Africans alone.
Like other international lawyers across Africa, I sincerely hope that these all-important humanitarian principles are not mere tools used strategically by the stronger powers to enlighten the Continent many so wrongly perceive to be Dark.