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Africa to world: We can handle war justice ourselves

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This week a group of earnest religious leaders from the rural reaches of northern Uganda - home to Africa's longest-running war - traveled 4,500 miles to the Netherlands. They made a passionate plea to the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, which went something like this: Stay out of our war. We can handle it ourselves. You'll only make it worse if you get involved.

Their plea is symbolic of a growing debate over the ICC's role in Africa - one that's fundamentally about balancing two vastly different systems of justice in order to boost peace on the continent: the Western, punitive sense of justice and the African, conciliatory one, famously symbolized by South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission pardoning many apartheid-era torturers and murders.

Also this week, Nigeria proposed that an African tribunal - not the ICC - address atrocities in Sudan's Darfur Province, where the US says genocide has occurred. In all, the effort to "strike a balance between the prosecutorial approach and restorative justice is coming to the fore," says Paul Nantulya of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town, South Africa.

The Nigerian proposal would establish a justice-and-reconciliation tribunal to deal with crimes in Darfur, where the UN now says 180,000 people have been killed since Feb. 2003. The panel would fit with recent efforts to develop African solutions to African problems - and might help break a deadlock in the UN Security Council over how to proceed on Darfur. It's between pro-ICC Europe and the Bush administration, which opposes the ICC because it fears US troops would be subject to frivolous claims.

The Ugandan leaders, meanwhile, argue that the ICC's promise to indict top commanders of the Lord's Resistance Army, the rebel group waging war with Uganda's government, will scare rebels from peace talks and prolong the 18-year conflict. If rebel leader Joseph Kony is indicted, "then he will use our people as human shields," says Sheikh Musa Khalil of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative in Gulu, Uganda, which sent representatives to The Hague. Furthermore, "Without forgiveness we cannot rebuild the community" after the war, he says.

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