Peace Begins with Justice

“Justice.  Without justice there is no peace.  If you start with justice, peace follows.  Then we can go home.”

-Darfuri Refugee

Years ago, I worked as a counselor for families with heavy behavior problems that had entered “the system” because of some form of child abuse.  The parents always thought that it would be my job to “fix” their kids.  With little exception, I focused on the behavior of the mother and/or father and on how they could better parent their kids using consequences – good and bad – depending on the behavior.  The households were chaotic, traumatic, and sad.  There was extreme abuse.  The problem behavior and the response from the family members continued and continued – and continued – in the same misguided pattern.  The problems would get worse.

My current job also deals with heavy behavior problems, but these problems and the response by the international community have resulted in millions of people being killed, millions more displaced, and human rights abuses such as mass rape and child-soldiering.

Over the last six years, I have spent many hours sitting with families that are the victims of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.  The horrors they share are devastating to me as a listener.  I cannot even imagine what it might have been like to experience.  A father seeing his sons killed.  A brother seeing his sister raped.  A mother walking across the desert, her home in flames and separated from some her children, unsure if they would survive.  No matter who I meet from hundreds of thousands of refugees in camps, they all have a tragic story to tell.

The International Criminal Court has declared what has happened in Darfur as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.  Darfur is the homeland of those we visit in refugee camps in Chad.  The perpetrators, including the sitting president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, still walk free.  They continue to commit the exact same crimes they have been committing for decades.  Darfur is a chaotic, dangerous, and sad place.  The consequences coming from the international community have also continued and continued – and continued – in the same misguided pattern, and the problems only get worse.

Omar al-Bashir and others continue with their criminal behavior because they operate with impunity, and they continue to receive positive consequences (better known as rewards!) for their actions.  Why change?  It is a basic of behavioral science: people will continue to do what they are doing, if they continue to get what they want, and they don’t have to pay for it.

Enter justice.  It is the one essential component that Darfuri refugees tell us will begin the process of returning to normal, peaceful lives.  We were in a refugee camp very close to the Chad-Sudan border just weeks after the first arrest warrants were announced by the ICC.  Close to 30,000 refugees living in this camp have endured body and spirit-breaking hardship.  They have waited for over seven years, watching the sands of the Sahara begin to eat away their camp, for the international community to act on their behalf.  They have very little to celebrate and much to lament.  When they heard news reports over radio about the arrest warrants in the middle of the night, messengers ran through the pitch dark camp shouting the good news.  A full on celebration began and continued through the rising of the sun and setting again the next day.

Luis Moreno Ocampo, the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, became an instant hero.  There are now many Darfuri children named Ocampo.  The Darfuris I have met have a strong sense of justice.  They believe it is above them and everyone.  A young mother told us that if her son had committed war crimes, she would want him to face justice.  No one should be exempt – much less the ones guilty of dropping bombs on the homes of innocent civilians, killing men and boys, raping women and children, and displacing millions that continue in danger of more violence, illness, and starvation.

Analysts, intellectuals, pundits, diplomats, and activists immediately started the “peace vs. justice” debate.  Many believe that justice must take a backseat to peace, and that seeking justice is actually a threat to peace and to the security of the victims.  al-Bashir’s expulsion of sixteen aid organizations working inside Darfur seemed to give the upper hand to the “peace” side of the debate.  The blame for the expulsion disappeared from al-Bashir’s hand and magically appeared in the hand of justice.  Also minimized was the fact that the Sudanese government did not need the “justice excuse” to consistently control aid and resources in Darfur, continue its support of the Janjaweed attacks, repeatedly bomb villages, and maintain a state of designed chaos – with innocent civilians suffering and dying in the process.

When we asked the survivors, they did not understand the debate.  “It is not ‘peace vs. Justice’ or even ‘peace or justice,’” they said.  “It is peace AND justice.  They come together, and one cannot happen without the other.”  What about the risks to them and their families, inside of Darfur and in the camps in Chad?  Another strange question to them.  “What have we been experiencing for the last six years?”

A comprehensive and restorative approach to justice will not only deal with the behavior and actions of criminals like al-Bashir, Kony, Gaddafi (each of these names can be a link to their EI wanted page), and others, but will also allow victims to heal and return to a life of dignity.  It does not stop there.  The positive ripple effect spreads to other areas of the world and into the future.  Other potential mass-criminals will know that mass-crimes will result in consequences they will not like.  They will know that justice is an essential and inevitable part of how the world responds to the worst of the worst crimes against humanity.

Adam, a Darfuri refugee that is now a good friend once told me, “Justice is a way to mend the damage.”  After justice, “then we will forgive.”

The campaign to end impunity has been taken on by many people around the world.  Victims are the strongest in their conviction, despite the dangers they face – but activists and regular citizens in places far away from where the crimes take place are also playing an important role.  We must be louder and more visible.

Will you join? 

Gabriel Stauring

Gabriel is the Co-founder of Stop Genocide Now and has visited Darfuri refugee camps ten times over the last six years.

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Welcome to End Impunity. A campaign to stop mass atrocities going unpunished, seek prosecution of the perpetrators, restore dignity to the victims, and provide healing to the affected communities.