Treat greed in Africa as a war crime

When the International Criminal Court made public an arrest warrant in November for Simone Gbagbo, a former first lady of Ivory Coast, on charges of crimes against humanity, it set two precedents. F

or the first time, it had indicted a woman – and someone who had held no formal public office. The previous year, Mrs. Gbagbo’s husband, Laurent, became the first former head of state to face trial before the ICC.

The indictments of the Gbagbos are welcome, but they don’t bring the court any closer to confronting the fundamental causes of the violence that has plagued Ivory Coast – and most of sub-Saharan African – for centuries.

Colonial rule, and the military takeovers and suppression of democratic movements that followed it, have contributed enormously to the misery. But even those legacies are not the root cause.

Violence in Africa begins with greed – the discovery and extraction of natural resources like oil, diamonds and gas – and continues to be fed by struggles for control of energy, minerals, food and other commodities.

The court needs the power to punish those who profit from those struggles. So do other judicial forums.

At a summit meeting here last week, leaders of the African Union proposed expanding the criminal jurisdiction of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights to include corporate criminal liability for the illicit exploitation of natural resources, trafficking in hazardous wastes and other offences.

Africa’s so-called “resource curse” is legendary. Practices like child labour reproduce exploitation, but the ICC holds neither the rural farmers nor the international corporations that depend on such practices responsible. Claimants have had to sue, instead, in the courts of sovereign nations.

In Sudan, the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation has been assailed for supplying the military with resources and oil revenues that were used to support the mass displacement and killings of civilians, but it operates with impunity.

The ICC should be empowered to prosecute corporate crimes. That may be difficult. It would require agreement among the signatories to the statute.

For all its deficiencies, the ICC– which in 10 years has achieved just a single conviction, that of a Congolese warlord last year – has a global reach and responsibility as the world’s first permanent war-crimes tribunal.

If it is to be relevant to Africa, the ICC must have the power to prosecute corporate involvement in illicit extraction of resources. Expanding the powers of the African court would also help.

True international justice means not only investigating heads of state, but also the multinational companies that are part of the ecosystem of Africa’s violence.

The writer is a professor of anthropology at Yale