.... There's a popular term used in International Relations called INTEREST. It is the crux of global politics and this recent showdown between the two (2) world superpowers (Russia and the United States) reinforces Dr. Martin Luther King’s above remark on justice in unequivocal terms. In more ways than not, it re-echoes the prevailing truth that the dispense of true justice, whether Bout’s release or through the ICC, is often unjust and thrives with powerful states’ interests.
By Robert Clarke
This, perhaps, may not be the best way to present this article, but it does put into context what is to be discussed. The subject matter highlights in rather clear terms how geopolitical interests continue to undermine the crusade for international justice. It emphasizes how the existing inequalities and injustices on a broader scale are nothing more than a grand political farce. But before I go into the details of this commentary, here is something I want to share with you.
When my good friend, Lelann Evans, decided to write about the ‘biases of the international criminal court (ICC)’ in graduate school, his work was denied more times than I can recall by the academic committee. I watched him challenge a system that did everything within its power to prevent him from writing about The Court. But Lelann was determined.
He visited the ICC in the Hague and for a number of days reviewed cases on the books that had been tried since its establishment. During his thesis defense, Lelann brilliantly argued that the court is plagued with an “inherent racial bias” against African leaders. While the main contention of his supervisor was his use of the phrase “racial bias,” Lelann, to some extent, was not wrong.
It may interest you to know that of the thirty-one (31) cases brought before The Court, the office of the prosecutor has investigated eight (8), issued four (4) convictions and acquitted three (3). (https://www.icc-cpi.int/cases). It may further interest you to know that these cases mostly involve African heads of state. However, this revelation does not in any way absolve the accused individuals from the atrocities they committed in their respective countries. This more complex than simplistic comparison is made between the number of African leaders tried at The Court versus their Western counterparts. To date, the only non-African leader prosecuted at the tribunal is Slobodan Milošević— former Yugoslavia president. To the above report, and in your judgment, I ask, was Lelann wrong in his argument? I think not. However, his experience with the committee was an odd introduction to my own encounter with them. An encounter that also sets the basis for the main discussion of this piece: the Viktor Bout and Brittney Griner swap.
In 2017, I submitted an academic research proposal to investigate “Transnational Arms Trade into African Conflict Zones,” highlighting both Liberia and Sierra Leone as case studies. The proposed research intended to establish a nexus between lootable resources (gold, diamonds, timber, cobalt, coltan, crude oil, etc...) and conflicts in Africa.
I wanted to understand the transhipment of arms from suppliers (countries and individuals) to end-users (governments, warlords and warring groups, etc...). I was keen on knowing how these transactions were conducted: whether arms delivered to the selected countries were purchased on monetary terms or otherwise negotiated with readily available resources. The proposal was denied four (4) times by the same committee. Why was my request denied?
I was told by the academic board that my proposed topic, in their view, was not “researchable.” That I wouldn’t be able to access the relevant information to support my argument. They were wrong. My bent on carrying out that research led to the shocking discovery of Viktor Bout (”The Merchant of Death”) and his role in the theater of African wars.
Several accounts labeled Bout as an infamous Russian arms dealer who was said to have been involved in weaponizing actors of the duo conflict and other African wars at the time. Bout’s line of business promoted the illicit trade of Liberia’s timber and Sierra Leone’s diamonds. It resulted in the killings of about 250,000 people during the Liberian civil war.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) also provided more data than I bargained for. It listed Russia as the premier exporter of arms to the continent between the years 1990-2005. So, what was the source of Bout’s weapons supply and how did Africa become a lucrative trade market for him?
It is generally believed that when the Soviet Union collapsed, stockpiles of ammunition were warehoused. African “new wars” created a huge demand for them. Bout’s métier as a Russian military translator and arms dealer qualified him for a new market. The discovery of his venture into Liberia and his association with key government agents give me a renewed sense of confidence to make a last-ditch effort with the academic board.
When I appeared before them with these new findings, it warranted my fourth denial and subsequent expulsion under a lazy pretext. In summary, and like Lelann, I was disallowed to write about individuals and foreign governments that supplied weapons for wars that ruined my childhood. Nonetheless, a two-page letter to the committee rescinded its decision and had me complete the program with a change of topic. Now, to the issue at bay.
On December 8, 2022, Viktor Bout — the popular Russian gun runner — was released from a US detention facility in what appeared to be an arranged quid-pro-quo for the American athlete, Brittney Griner, who was imprisoned in Russia on drug charges. While Griner’s homecoming was celebrated by many Americans, there are some reservations about Bout’s release. What does it mean for the victims killed in these senseless wars by weapons he supplied? Is justice, by definition, finally served and for who?
It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere...”
There's a popular term used in International Relations called INTEREST. It is the crux of global politics and this recent showdown between the two (2) world superpowers (Russia and the United States) reinforces Dr. Martin Luther King’s above remark on justice in unequivocal terms. In more ways than not, it re-echoes the prevailing truth that the dispense of true justice, whether Bout’s release or through the ICC, is often unjust and thrives with powerful states’ interests.
It fails to protect the common people and threatens the very survival of the Rule of Law. It is also ironic to think that the United States, a non-member but major financier of the ICC to prosecute perpetrators of war crimes, will undermine the course of international justice in such a regard. This deafening hypocrisy of the American value system, evidenced by the Bout and Griner swap, in essence, is an absolute travesty of international justice.