The Hague as comfortable exile

Feared Congolese militia commander Bosco Ntaganda made his first appearance at the International Criminal Court in the Hague yesterday. Last week, Ntaganda unexpectedly presented himself at the U.S. embassy in Kigali and requested that he be sent to the ICC for trial. He was indicted by the ICC in 2006, although the arrest warrant wasn't made public until 2009.

The precise events that prompted Ntaganda's sprint for the embassy aren't known yet, but a split within the M23 rebel movement to which he belonged appears to have prompted his decision. There's been informed speculation that Ntaganda may not have felt safe seeking refuge with the Rwandan government, although he was born in Rwanda and reportedly received Rwandan assistance over the years. The ICC likely looked like the best of several bad options for the beleagured warlord.

That may say something important about the role the ICC can play. One of the debates that swirls around international justice efforts is whether they may actually impede political transitions by backing key actors into a corner. During the Libya conflict, many observers -- and likely some Western government officials -- worried that ICC indictments of Qaddafi and his lead henchmen might cut off the possibility of exile and encourage him to fight to the last. But the Ntaganda case suggests an alternate possibility: that the ICC itself can become a form of exile.

A sojourn to the Hague has several distinct advantages. Pre-trial proceedings and trials themselves are drawn-out affairs, meaning that indictees can sometimes spend years before facing a verdict. Acquittal is a real possibility. Cases against senior leaders are notoriously complex and sometimes rely on evidence that doesn't hold up in court. Accommodations for prisoners while they await the end of their trials reach pretty high standards, with  television, computer access, and ample opportunity for exercise and recreation (see the video at the bottom of this post for a virtual tour). The food is carefully prepared:

Detained persons are provided with suitably prepared food that satisfies in quality and quantity the standards of dietetics and modern hygiene. Additionally, detained persons are allowed to cook for themselves; they can purchase additional items, listed on the shopping list of the Detention Centre, as available, in order for them to adjust the meals provided to them, according to their taste and cultural requirements.

There's nothing to prevent a retired warlord or dictator from penning memoirs and staying in touch electronically with friends, family and colleagues:

With a view of maintaining family links, as provided for by the Regulations of the Registry, the Registrar gives specific attention to visits by the family and visits by the wife or partner of the detained persons; and may take measures to assist the family in the necessary procedures thereof, if required.

Even if a guilty verdict does eventually come down, the ICC's statute does not permit the death penalty; the worst possible outcome is extended imprisonment (although not in the same detention center). Being indicted for serious crimes may sting, but for many it will be more enticing than the possibility of living life on the lam, with the possibility of Muammar al-Qaddafi's grisly end always in the background. 

(Click anywhere on the image to stop/start play.)

The Multilateralist

The UN's troubled Lebanon peacekeepers

The UN's mission in Lebanon (UNIFIL) marked its thirty-fifth anniversary last week (ironically, the first "I" in UNIFIL stands for Interim). With the Syria civil war raging next door, it's been a traumatic time for UN peacekeeping efforts in the region, which include UNIFIL and the even older UNDOF mission (tasked with monitoring the disputed Golan Heights). Earlier this month, Syrian rebels seized 21 UNDOF personnel, holding them for four days. Meanwhile, there have been frequent reports of incursions along the thinly monitored Lebanon-Syria border. A few days ago, residents of southern Lebanon reportedly stripped some UNIFIL soldiers of their equipment. Richard Gowan looks at the increasingly troubled environment in which one of the UN's longest-serving peacekeeping missions operates:

In recent years, UNIFIL has played a useful role in facilitating communications between the Lebanese and Israeli armies. If tensions increase, the U.N. can at least try to continue to play this small role. To have a greater impact on the security situation, however, it might be necessary to reinforce the mission, adding some of the European units that have drifted away since 2006 and readying an over-the-horizon reserve to assist them in an all-out crisis. Turkey, which already has a contingent in the mission, could also play a useful part in this process. But any indication that UNIFIL was moving toward a more assertive footing could infuriate Hezbollah, shake the Lebanese government and panic some troop contributors.

For now, UNIFIL can act as a brake on any potential escalation in southern Lebanon, but its limits are clear. If any one of a number of players -- Hezbollah, Israel, anti-Assad forces in Syria or opponents of Hezbollah inside Lebanon -- decides to escalate, the U.N. can do relatively little to stop them. UNIFIL has weathered major storms in the past 35 years, and even if the situation in Lebanon deteriorates, the mission may still be there to pick up the pieces afterward. But the year ahead may test UNIFIL to its limits.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified the seized peacekeepers as UNIMIL and, more broadly, conflated the UNIMIL and UNDOF missions. My thanks to a reader for catching the error.