“There is nothing more important than peace,” Ian Paisley tells us in a recent op-ed in the International Herald Tribune (“Peace Must Not Be the Victim of International Justice”). It’s a standard critique of both the ICC and universal jurisdiction. And the claims can seem compelling at first glance:
First, Paisley sets up a classic ethical dilemma, portraying international justice as punishment of individuals and peace as a collective good. Then there’s the well-meaning neocolonial discourse—the language of non-Western tribes, local proverbs, and age-old conflicts—which can seem culturally attuned and deeply informed. Finally, and potentially most devastating, is a warning: in conflict-ridden societies, pursuing justice can backfire and cause greater violence. In this scheme of things, international justice is depicted as either futile and naïve or costly and dangerous.
Critics like Paisley are correct that pursuing international justice can lead to conflict. But demands for justice are not causes of conflict, only an excuse for rulers requiring acquiescence. When political leaders respond to claims for justice with violence, they’re ruling coercively. Post-conflict negotiations, including in places like South Africa and Northern Ireland, always entail a delicate balancing act between alternative imaginings of peace and justice, not crude privileging of any single vision.
These debates are, of course, partly semantic. If peace is defined as stability and the absence of violent conflict, the choice between high-possibility deaths or low-probability convictions seems false. But the angle shifts dramatically when justice is understood as a social process, and peace is valued in terms of its quality and purposes.
Paisley’s rhetoric—the insistence on peace at all costs—is reactionary and intransigent. It won’t entirely resonate with people caught in systems of domination and daily humiliation, unwilling to sell out their political-legal aspirations in exchange for a fictionalized peace.