If you look at the world through Courtenay Griffiths QC’s eyes then, inevitably, you look at the world through the lens of Karl Marx.
“Remember your Marx,” exhorts the Jamaican-born, British-raised Queen’s Counsel several times during a recent interview in Johannesburg. In the interview he sketches out a world where the national interests of traditional powers such as the United States and France conflate with the economic interests of multi-nationals to influence the international criminal justice system. His is a world where the pursuit of oil supplies by first-world economies clouds international political morality and the self-styled global policemen from the North preach democratic virtue but act contra to this virtue in countries such as Afghanistan, Iran and Nicaragua.
“Always ask yourself, ‘Who stands to benefit?’ every time a decision [by the International Criminal Court (ICC)] is taken to prosecute a particular leader or not prosecute someone else,” he says.
Griffiths is intimate with the ICC: he represented former Liberian president Charles Taylor at his trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity at The Hague. Taylor recently lost his appeal and looks set to spend the rest of his life in prison. He is also skeptical of the attempt to institute international justice and is extremely critical of the “selectivity” of the ICC in whom it chooses to prosecute. In the main, those prosecuted have been African. “One of my major concerns about the way the ICC is currently focusing on Africa is that in every Western country with a sizeable black population you find that the use of stop and search powers, the rate of arrests and the rate of imprisonment is disproportionately skewed to black people. What we are doing now on a global scale is replicating that association between blackness and criminality. Just as an outsider looking at the ICC now, where everybody is African, the immediate impression you get is that Africa is where war crimes occur.”
It is a concern raised consistently by African countries – all eight of the current cases the ICC is looking to prosecute involve African leaders – to the point that the African Union’s special summit in Addis Ababa on October 10 and 11 will discuss whether its members should pull out of the Rome Statute, the agreement that makes signatories subject to the ICC’s probes into international human rights violations.
Following the ICC’s insistence that Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto be tried for post-election violence outside the country, the Kenyan parliament voted on September 5 to pull out of the Rome Statute. Kenya has since been lobbying AU member states (34 of the 54 countries are Rome Statute signatories) to pull out of the agreement. If they do, it would be a blow to the ICC’s legitimacy.
“There is much to be said about Kenya’s stance to withdraw from the ICC,” says Griffiths. “The ICC needs to clearly get the signal that they either reform the way they go about their work and get rid of their racist image or we are not going to genuinely develop this new idea of a global system of international criminal law. “But, if Kenya goes and the AU also decides to withdraw, then it behooves them to put something in its place. While I am critical of the ICC, it does not mean that I support immunity for war criminals – that is not my position at all – but I do believe what is currently being peddled by the ICC is not justice,” says Griffiths.
In Griffiths’ eyes, international politics hinders the pursuit of international justice. He feels that through the United Nation’s Security Council, countries such as China and the United States – neither of which have signed on to the Rome Statute – can dictate the ICC’s “selectivity”. The Sri Lanka government, he says, will never be prosecuted for the mass slaughter of Tamils during its 2009 offensive through the north of the island country. The offensive eviscerated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam, but the government will avoid prosecution because the US won’t “drive the Sri Lankans into the arms of the Chinese”. Likewise former Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi “was never going to make it out of Libya alive to face an ICC prosecution… can you imagine him holding court at The Hague detailing the atrocities he had committed on behalf of Western countries so interested in Libyan oil?” asks Griffiths.
There is also a broader hypocrisy and double standards that Griffiths is extremely wary of: “What is the difference between a 15-year-old boy in Freetown during the Freetown Invasion hacking someone’s arm off – I’m not condoning it – what is the difference between that and a US soldier sitting in a bunker in Nevada controlling a drone over Pakistan. Dropping a bomb on a house knowing that he is not just killing a target, but that he is going to wipe out women, children and everything else at the same time? What is the difference between the two and yet that PlayStation style of murder isn’t viewed in the same light by the public. Why not? [US president Barack] Obama has been using these drones consistently, knowing full well that they can’t be used with the accuracy they allege. Knowing full well that he is murdering people – and remember, he is the one who has to give the say-so. That man has blood on his hands. I don’t think often-times people are ready enough to accuse him of that. Obama is a war criminal – that’s my view,” he says.
Griffiths, whose decision to practice criminal law was a “political decision” in the face of institutional racism black immigrants were facing in Britain from the 60s onwards, is a keen reader of Frantz Fanon, Richard Wright, Chinua Achebe and James Baldwin. He is also bloody clever, but easy-going and, quite evidently, a political animal. He is as wary of African leaders as he is of the West’s Tony Blairs and Barack Obamas. He envisages a Pan-African economy and politics imbued with a deeper humanism, but only if the continent “opens up [processes] to ordinary people”. “If we leave it to the heads of states and political elites in Africa, justice won’t happen because of their self-interest – the political elite won’t let it happen because of their self interest.”
Having moved to England in 1961 with his family, Griffiths’s formative years were spent in a country where racism was overt and institutionalised. His very first experience of racism was when the 11-member family were trudging to their new home in Coventry and being stopped in the street by people who wanted to “touch us for good luck or to see if the colour rubbed off”. “The social and economic circumstances in which I grew up caused me to develop an antipathy to the police, and I chose to practice criminal law in order to protect the kind of people I grew up with,” says Griffiths, who had won a scholarship to the prestigious public school Bablake before studying law at the London School of Economics.
Griffiths draws from Marx, but only because “Marx is useful as an interpretational tool” to understand geo-politics. “I always saw the courtroom as an arena of struggle. It wasn’t always a purely legalistic process involved in the courtroom. You always had to engage with the politics of the situation and I have always sought out the more political cases like the Charles Taylor case and indeed Judge Hlophe, because I can see that there are some serious political issues to be challenged here and its about having the confidence, the willingness and the readiness to take on these issues in the courtroom,” he says. Griffiths believes the notion of pure law is “complete nonsense”: “[Judges] are involved in making political decisions in many instances and I think as a lawyer you have to recognise that reality otherwise you are not doing your job.”
He says Taylor was “one of my easiest clients” who, by the end of the trial, had become well versed in law, even making suggestions to his team – several of which they followed up on. In a memorable cross-examination during the Taylor trial, Griffiths took on the notoriously bad-tempered supermodel Naomi Campbell. The English press at the time had contended that while Campbell had brought glamour to the Taylor trial, Griffiths had been its star with his dead-pan one-liners and flamboyant style. He says by the time supermodel Naomi Campbell had finished her testimony at the Taylor trial – where she had been called by the prosecution to advance the view that Taylor had given her blood diamonds – she “was my witness”.
“You always need a line to keep the audience hooked,” he says of his brutal cross-examination of Campbell’s then-estranged agent Carol White, which he concluded with a line from Grandmaster Flash: “Put bluntly, this is all about the money. There ain’t nothing funny.” Griffiths, a former Rastafarian who used to run his own sound system in England when younger, says he got hooked on Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaata and the like while living in New York when hip hop exploded there in the early 80s, and he was a regular at gigs in the Bronx.
During his time cross examining or defending witnesses, Griffiths has seen and heard it all: from self-confessed cannibal Joseph “ZigZag” Marzah, telling him during the Taylor trial that white United Nations representatives he had eaten “tasted like pork” and that Nigerians tasted the best, to having to defend a serial rapist and robber, who insisted that he had been framed by a vindictive ex-lover who had stored his semen before disseminating it in rape victims over a 25 year period.
“Over the years I have defended some morally very troubling cases but my position is that I am not the moral judge of the court… In the most basic terms, I am a hired gun. I’m a mercenary. I’m there to be their voice in court but that doesn’t mean that I become them. As a result when I leave the courtroom I have very little difficulty jettisoning what happening there. I sleep extremely soundly,” he says.
Photo by Oupa Nkosi