Britain’s Coalition Government promises localism at home, but not in other people’s countries

One hopes that the localism agenda, at the heart of the coalition agreement, will find its way into the policy machine at the FCO before an unaccountable body opposes itself on more countries

Will the message from Cameron and Clegg catch on?
Charles Anglin
On 15 May 2012 11:20

Localism, devolving power from Whitehall to local communities, is the political motif of the Coalition Government. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats embrace the localism agenda and last year passed The Localism Act to “take power from central government” while “giving freedom and flexibility to [local communities] to achieve their own ambitions”. It was one of the few points of easy consensus in the Coalition Agreement; both David Cameron and Nick Clegg championed giving power back to people, taking it away from faceless, remote bureaucracies, when they were in opposition.

This view has broad agreement across the Westminster political elite. Policy Exchange – the Cameroonian think-tank – cites giving power to local people as a key aim. Centre Forum, a liberal policy house close to Nick Clegg, have pushed localist solutions for years.    

Away from those creating and debating ideas which are likely to influence the manifestos of both governing parties at the next General Election, Conservatives use similar arguments to fight against the European Court of Human Rights. There is more to come: despite the rejection of the proposals for new directly elected Mayors on May 3rd, the process will be repeated in a vote for the first ever police commissioners.

Away from domestic issues it would be easy to say that the British government carries through this localism agenda, championing it to the world, via the internationally recognised principle of self-determination. Indeed, for the Lib Dems, championing local democracy and self determination are in our DNA -- from Gladstone to Clegg, no party leader has failed to cast themselves as champions of democracy at home or abroad. The principle is simple, what can be done locally, should be done locally.  

Yet the record of this British government as a torch bearer of local democracy isn’t quite so spotless when the democracies in question aren’t British. All too often, when it comes to dealing with overseas states, we seem to believe that while localism is good for the goose, the gander isn’t quite so ready for it. Our unswerving backing of the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the expense of local democratic and judicial process is a case in point.    

The ICC was founded in 2002 to "bring to justice the perpetrators of the worst crimes known to humankind – war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide", especially when national courts are unable or unwilling to do so. Its record in realising these laudable aims since then has been poor, with its methods of achieving justice worse. Spending over $1billion, it has only ever secured one single conviction in its nine years of existence.

The approach of the ICC’s chief prosecutor - Luis Moreno-Ocampo - has been widely criticised by fellow lawyers, human rights campaigners and NGOs operating in countries where the worst cases of abuse and genocide have been committed.  Many believe Ocampo has failed to secure effective evidence in high profile cases or followed due process to ensure fair trials for those he is prosecuting. This has had the reverse effect to that hoped for; a rise in human rights abuses was reported as a result of his actions in Sudan while local support for the ICC’s efforts is hard to find.  

As in Sudan, the ICC’s heavy handed approach in Uganda has created additional tension between opposing groups instead of acting as a stepping stone toward reconciliation between former adversaries.

The US Department of State has argued that there are “insufficient checks and balances on the authority of the ICC prosecutor and judges” and “insufficient protection against politicized prosecutions or other abuses”. Ironically arguments such as these the ICC uses itself to justify it taking on a supra-national role to prosecute citizens of democratic countries.

Over the next year the ICC could potentially have a significant impact on the democratic process in Kenya, a country moving toward a presidential election. Here the ICC, through Ocampo, has begun prosecutions against four Kenyan leaders accused of orchestrating the 2007/ 2008 post election violence which claimed many lives and threatened to tear the country apart.

This trial - whether intended as such or not - is seen by many as an intervention in the Kenyan political process, when only the Kenyan people should have the right to decide who leads their country. Despite the cycle of violence being complex, perpetrated by all ethnic and political groups and across most of the counties that make up Kenya, the prosecutions are aimed at only one side of the Kenyan political divide. The fact that the four accused before the court are not from the prime minister’s party – Prime Minister Odinga is also in the process of standing for president – will increase suspicion the case has roots in political expediency that benefits one side alone.

It is sadly ironic that British politicians want to stop Strasbourg hearing cases that should remain the business of democratic parliaments and national courts – particularly the UK parliament and courts – but are happy to allow another supra-national body, such as the ICC, to decide how a country like Kenya is run.  

To insist that the International Criminal Court involves itself in the politics of African countries because these countries do not have identical justice systems to that on which the ICC is based – the French judicial system – is unbalanced and potentially damaging to the democratic process across the African continent.   

The coalition Government’s unwavering support for the ICC seems wildly schizophrenic considering its commitment to self-determination internationally and localism as a solution to many domestic challenges. The current prosecutions by the ICC wilfully ignore the right of self-determination of Kenya and her people. 

It may be that this support is an historic hangover from previous policy within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). One hopes that the localism agenda, at the heart of the government’s coalition agreement, will find its way into the policy machine at the FCO before an unaccountable body opposes itself on any more countries and with it, undermines the local democratic processes Britain as a nation is so keen to foster.

Charles Anglin is a member of the Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee, the body responsible for writing the party’s General Election Manifesto

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