Among the criticisms aimed against the international community’s efforts over recent years to prosecute individuals responsible for some of the world’s most egregious atrocities, one is particularly worth addressing – that such efforts are usually aimed only at the developing world, particularly Africa, and that leaders in the west do not subject them to the same form of accountability.

Its latest manifestation has occurred with the recent arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for Sudanese President Omar El Bashir. Critics of the warrant claim it is a blatant double standard to hold the Sudanese president accountable for alleged crimes in Darfur while ignoring alleged crimes committed by western leaders such as George W. Bush or Tony Blair. 

While many, including this writer, were outraged by the Iraq war, analogizing Iraq to Darfur is legally specious and not useful. Furthermore, this reasoning dangerously blurs all conflicts into simply unfortunate situations where many are guilty and therefore no one is really guilty. Downplaying the horrors of Darfur to make a political point about western double standards not only wrong, it’s cruel. Degree does matter and what has and is happening in Darfur is simply today’s greatest humanitarian crisis. Efforts at accountability are not only right, they are long overdue. 

Nevertheless, those who allege a double standard are not totally wrong in their overall sentiment but rather in their direction. Instead, perhaps the greatest impunity gap that exists in the field of international criminal law, whether at the various ad-hoc tribunals or at the ICC, has been the failure to prosecute the western commercial entities and individuals associated with some of the world’s worst atrocities. Down the line, to varying degrees, there were and continue to be western “business” people associated with some of the worst perpetrators of crime. Past and current conflicts in West Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Angola and others, provide examples of non-Africans who could be prosecuted on theories of aiding and abetting or even in some instances participation in larger criminal conspiracies related to some of Africa’s worst human rights abuses. Why has international justice failed to capture this aspect of these crimes? 

Part of it is simply resources. These are difficult cases to prosecute and often resources and expertise to build cases against such individuals is simply absent. While the international community and the UN outwardly encourage international justice, rarely is there the will to provide prosecutorial entities with the resources to address these cases.  It is simply cheaper and easier to only go after those closest to the crimes. Furthermore, the countries where these individuals reside or conduct their business are themselves often uncooperative with international prosecutors’ efforts to gather evidence which often involves bank records, computer files etc. 

Of the many issue discussed nowadays related to the banking and financial sectors of the west, rarely has the issue of transparency come up when it is related to these institutions connections to business ventures in the developing world. Yet, often the regimes supporting today’s worst human rights abusers are in virtual partnership with outside “investors” who benefit from the secrecy and lack of transparency in today’s financial markets. 

Historically the west, both Europe and America, and now more recently China, have, to a great degree, been on the same page about one thing — ignoring and, in some cases, even tacitly supporting their own commercial interests in stealing from Africa. This is the real hypocrisy. And until the scope of international justice mechanisms extend to these commercial players in some of the worst human rights abuses, the hypocrisy will remain.