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Thabo Mbeki: ‘Justice cannot trump peace’

The former South African president says balancing stability and rule of law is a principal challenge facing Africa.

From Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta to Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, strong African leaders are facing accusations of serious wrongdoing, and even crimes against humanity. Some are already standing trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

But a political reaction in Africa against these efforts to bring justice from outside is gathering strength.

The leader of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, for instance, says he needs Bashir not in a court room or in jail, but at the negotiating table in order to reach peace with Sudan. And in Kenya, the people of that country gave Kenyatta, a man accused of war crimes, their support and elected him president earlier this year.


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to end this conflict. Our first task is to stop the killing of these Africans. But the challenge that arises is when someone says that the issue of justice trumps the issue of peace.”]

It seems that some citizens and leaders in countries across the continent have a different idea about what comes first: justice or peace.

And few African leaders have as long a history dealing with both of these challenges as Thabo Mbeki.

The former South African president succeeded Nelson Mandela in 1999, and since his time in office ended, has been involved in the affairs of the wider continent.  

He knows all the major players in Africa’s trouble spots, including one of the most violent areas, the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where a 10-year bloody war may finally be reaching an end after the deployment of a more robust UN peacekeeping operation there.

Mbeki discusses the recent developments in the DRC, as well as the ongoing dispute between the two Sudans, where Bashir is wanted by the ICC for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Mbeki is personally involved in the Sudan situation in his role as a UN representative overseeing negotiations between the neighbours. But does he believe that justice comes before peace?

“These charges against people – like Omar al-Bashir in Sudan or Uhuru Kenyatta in Kenya – they arise out of situations of conflict,” Mbeki says. “Our first response as Africans is that here are Africans who are dying, so we need [to intervene] to end this conflict.

“Our first task is to stop the killing of these Africans. But the challenge that arises is when someone says that the issue of justice trumps the issue of peace.

“If you talk to the South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, and ask him if President Bashir should be transported to The Hague, he will say no. He says [no] ‘because I need him for the peace that we are trying to make’,” Mbeki adds.

“But then somebody else coming from outside says ‘no, no, justice is more important than the peace you are after’.”

Some have described South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy as a potential template for dealing with deep-seated conflict. Mbeki played a central role in the negotiations with the white regime which, he says, helped avert a racial war. He uses his country’s example as an approach that yielded a positive outcome.

“You can imagine what would have happened in our case, in South Africa, if the International Criminal Court was there in 1994, and somebody said arrest [apartheid-era President FW] de Klerk and take him to The Hague. We would have refused,” Mbeki says.

“We would have said no, because [we knew] what you need to do is to end apartheid, and we need President de Klerk here to lead the white population into the democratic settlement.

“We would never have agreed that justice must trump this – even though we agreed that apartheid was a crime against humanity. Sure it was a crime against humanity, but we can deal with this matter of justice differently. This is the principal challenge that faces us.”

This week, on Talk to Al Jazeera, presenter Mike Hanna sits down with former South African President Thabo Mbeki to discuss issues of conflict, peace and justice, and a challenge common to the African continent: how to build on democracy.

undefinedTalk to Al Jazeera can be seen each week at the following times GMT: Saturday: 0430 and 1930; Sunday: 1930; Monday: 1430 .  

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