Fairhaven's Babafemi Akinrinade discusses new book on mass atrocities and international law in Africa

WWU Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies Babafemi Akinrinade recently sat down with Western Today to talk about his new book, “Atrocity Crimes, Atrocity Laws and Justice in Africa.”

Akinrinade has spent his career studying international law and international human rights, mass atrocities, and the political and socio-economic relations of African states. He currently serves as the faculty coordinator of Fairhaven World Issues Forum in Western’s Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, where he also teaches in the college's Law, Diversity, and Justice program. He also serves as the associate director of the Ray Wolpow Institute for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Crimes Against Humanity. “Atrocity Crimes, Atrocity Laws and Justice in Africa” is Akinrinade’s second major publication, following "Human Rights and State Collapse in Africa," published in 2009.

WT: Where did your research take you for your new book?

BA: "Much of the research was undertaken here in the U.S. An unusual part of this work was the Holocaust study tours of Eastern and Central Europe, and another study tour of Israel. These were under the aegis of the Holocaust Educational Foundation (HEF) and the Auschwitz Jewish Center Fellows Program. These were key to understanding aspects of complicity, the role of bystanders, and the evolution of society in the aftermath of multiple wars, the Holocaust, and the end of Communism. It was necessary to understand justice after mass atrocities and these countries had complicated histories of dealing with these issues and they provided a comparative framework for examining similarly complex issues within Africa."

WT: What key point or points should readers take from the book?

BA: "International criminal justice has progressed significantly since the Nuremberg Trials after World War II. The creation and operation of the International Criminal Court demonstrates this fact. However, the system remains a highly political process that remains uneven in its implementation, with a chorus of complaints from African countries who are the sole target of criminal prosecutions before the International Criminal Court. Criminal prosecutions have remained a dominant form of accountability for atrocity crimes before national, and international courts, including foreign country prosecutions. However, a very useful tool has been quasi-criminal immigration proceedings in some countries to ensure that perpetrators that have fled their countries are brought to justice. These non-criminal accountability options are helpful in closing the impunity gap.

The obstacles to accountability are many, but they are not insurmountable -- and the push to close the impunity gap must go on. Victims of atrocity crimes usually face a long wait for justice. We should not make them wait longer."

WT: What’s the most significant thing you learned while researching for your book?

BA: "I am not sure there is a 'most significant' thing. The accountability process for atrocity crimes is multi-layered and full of twists and turns. An odd fact is the duality of use of the human rights framework in responding to atrocity crimes. The accountability process is designed around the affirmation of the physical and security human rights of individuals through prosecutions of suspects. However, perpetrators have found ways of digging deep and using the same human rights framework to defeat accountability efforts. In doing so, some countries have proved themselves as useful hideouts, creating almost impossible barriers to achieving justice for victims in the name of human rights. The civilizational project has not ended; it has only evolved. The international criminal justice system appears to be another mechanism in the civilizational toolbox."

WT: In 2009, you published a book on human rights violations and state collapse in Africa. How does the new book connect to this issue? Do these issues overlap?

BA: "The 2009 publication examined the close connection between severe human rights violations and the phenomenon of state failure and collapse in Africa. The major case studies were Sierra Leone and Somalia, where egregious human rights violations amounting to atrocity crimes preceded and followed the collapse of the state. Somalia remains a dysfunctional state while Sierra Leone recovered from collapse. One of the major differences between both countries was the degree of accountability for atrocity crimes committed during the civil war in both countries. Sierra Leone utilized domestic prosecutions, which was complemented by the establishment and the operation of a hybrid international criminal tribunal, and a truth commission which dealt with issues beyond the scope of criminal prosecutions.

This domestic reckoning with atrocity crimes, aided by the imperfect efforts of the international community, helped to stabilize the state. Somalia has never had that reckoning, especially with the lack of emphasis on criminal accountability by external actors in its relations with Somalia before and since state collapse. It remains in a near-state of anarchy. The commission of atrocity crimes was a factor in the collapse of both states and the process of reckoning with those crimes has been a determining factor in the post-conflict environment in both states. The actors who brought Somalia to collapse were never brought to justice for their crimes against the civilian population. It is a lesson for other states that justice can be linked with peace."

WT: In your opinion, what would a perfect (or better) regional justice system look like in African countries? What steps need to be taken to approach that system?

BA: "The clamor for a regional version of international criminal systems within Africa can be situated in the continuum of impunity and justice for atrocity crimes, based on the needs of Africa and Africans. The most preferable option is a court that sits in the locus commissi delicti (the place where the crime was committed). However, in certain situations this may be impossible. One option is a fully regional single-seat criminal court that prosecutes Africans and others accused of committing atrocity crimes and are found within the continent. In this case, the current International Criminal Court will have responsibility for Africans who have escaped the continent and, for various reasons, cannot be extradited to Africa for prosecution and punishment. Another option is a fully regional multi-seat criminal court with chambers/units responsible for the various sub-regions of the continent.

This version will address geographic accessibility issues and probably help with cost reduction in view of lean resources. Another option is for the current International Criminal Court to sit in the locus commissi delicti, rather than prosecuting all cases in The Hague. While each of these options have their drawbacks, the appeal of the proposed African criminal court (within the African Court of Justice and Human Rights) is in the expansion of criminal responsibility beyond individuals to corporate entities, and a move from the privileging of criminal violations of civil and political rights to addressing violations of economic, social, and cultural rights. To make this work, there is a need to mobilize the political leadership of African countries through the African Union (AU) to ensure the ratification of 2014 Malabo Amendment Protocol creating the International Criminal Law section of the African Court. African NGOs have taken a lead in criminal accountability efforts and need to be supported in making this push a reality."

WT: On the externalization of justice: How can organizations like the International Criminal Court aid African countries in becoming self-sufficient in holding their own trials to deal with atrocities?

BA: "The 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court provides for complementarity of the ICC with national prosecutions. Rather than push for prosecutions at The Hague as it has done in some cases (Libya, for example), the Court could and should encourage national prosecutions of suspects, making the ICC a court of last resort when national authorities fail to prosecute. The ICC could establish technical assistance programs to build and enhance capacity for prosecuting these complex cases within national courts and share evidence with these courts."

Babafemi Akinrinade joined Western's Fairhaven College from the University of Chicago's Human Rights Program and Center for International Studies, where he was a post-doctoral instructor for two years. Akinrinade holds the LL.M. and J.S.D. degrees in International Human Rights Law of the University of Notre Dame Law School, as well as the LL.B. and LL.M. degrees of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria. He was a fellow at the Center for Civil and Human Rights, Notre Dame Law School (2005-2006) and from 2003 - 2004, he was the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Post-Doctoral Fellow (and co-Instructor) for the Sawyer Seminar on Comparative Truth and Reconciliation Process at the Center for International Human Rights, Northwestern University Law School, Chicago. He was admitted to the Nigerian Bar in 1988, and between 1992 and 2002, he was a Lecturer in Law at the Faculty of Law, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria (1992-2002).