THE welcome news that Vladimir Putin and his children’s rights commissioner have been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) highlights a central dilemma in peace-making: the clash between justice and peace. These two words are too often bundled together like a single term.

I was the absurdly grandly-titled "Head of Foreign Policy" – in fact a middle-ranking official – in the Cabinet Office in 2005. One issue we faced was how to help end the gruesome campaign of the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. British and other diplomats in the region had just made progress in bringing the LRA leaders into something like peace talks. The imminent prospect of ending the massacres was interrupted when the ICC issued its first-ever indictments, against Joseph Kony and Vincent Otti, the LRA’s leaders. Talks ended immediately and they returned to the bush. We were torn. We had lost the immediate chance of saving lives. But we were big supporters of the ICC (against strong opposition from the US among others) and the ICC’s credibility relied on its prosecution decisions being independent of governments, including those pursuing peace.

A similar tension was central to the Good Friday Agreement negotiations, concluded 25 years ago next month, in which i also played a small part. at church the following sunday, the Minister referred to the success for “justice and peace”. I was struck that her phrase masked a central tension in the Northern Ireland talks: the play-off between the two. Achieving political agreement on how to run Northern Ireland and its place in “these islands” was relatively straightforward. The much harder deal with Republicans and Loyalists to end violence – achieving peace – depended on setting aside the demands for justice from paramilitaries’ victims and their relatives. I thought then, and still think, that the compromise was worthwhile, but I respect those who found it too difficult. Speaking to a mainly Irish-American Boston audience two years later, I was heckled by a Lithuanian Jewish Holocaust survivor. He argued that a peace based on forgiving mass murderers could not be justified. He made me think; and he was hard to argue against. But I don’t think he was right on Northern Ireland.

This tension, between justice and peace, applies to many efforts at conflict resolution. One size doesn’t fit all. Several anti-Nazi Germans who were executed by Hitler argued against Allied demands for unconditional surrender, fearing that it would prolong the war. Admiral Darlan, the Vichy French Prime Minister unexpectedly caught in Algeria when the Allies invaded in 1942, was allowed to continue in power there to ease a peaceful transition. Chile’s restoration of democracy in a divided society involved an uncomfortable accommodation with General Pinochet, which only came unstuck when he encountered international criminal law on travels abroad.

Right now, a peace settlement between Russia and Ukraine looks remote. The ICC’s action is exactly what an independent criminal court system should be doing in these circumstances. It is clearly a proper exercise in justice. It will be interesting to see whether one day it becomes a complication in achieving peace.

George Fergusson is a former senior diplomat