More than 130 Africa-based civil society and human rights groups have banded together to issue an urgent appeal for African governments to cooperate with the International Criminal Court (ICC). The statement, released Thursday through Human Rights Watch, follows a July 3 declaration by the African Union (AU) shunning cooperation with the ICC’s pursuit of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
With the exception of Botswana, Uganda, and South Africa, member states meeting in Sirte, Libya voiced alarm that apprehending Mr. Bashir would ultimately inflict greater damage on Darfur refugees and on Sudan’s political stability than postponing any action against Khartoum. But the head of the International Crime in Africa Programme (ICAP) for the Africa-based Institute for Security Studies, Anton du Plessis, says a collective endorsement of the court is needed to reaffirm obligations undertaken by the 30 African countries who helped create the court 17 years ago.
“Civil society in Africa is worried about recent developments that seem to indicate that there’s some backtracking in terms of the political support for the court. And we believe that the statement that was issued in Sirte by the African Union heads of state summit not only undermines the International Criminal Court, but is an undermining of the rule of law in Africa,” he said.
African governments were instrumental in the founding of the court between 1998 and 2002 as a body of last resort to pursue perpetrators of war crimes, genocide, serious crimes against humanity. To date, 109 countries worldwide recognize the body and have agreed to meet the international obligations of abiding by terms of the court’s rulings and jurisdiction as spelled out in the Rome Statute of 1998.
Du Plessis says the Libya summit’s decision not to cooperate with the ICC warrant against Sudan’s Bashir runs contrary to its own role in setting up the court and is inconsistent with governments’ obligations to the institution.
“Essentially, in calling on African Union member states not to comply with the international treaty obligations, that is something which civil society needs to speak out on because ultimately, if African leaders are not going to take sides with the victims of these crimes, it’s important for civil society to do so,” he pointed out.
This week’s resounding response from African rights groups signals a groundswell of support for the court among the general populations of African countries that Anton du Plessis calls a promising development.
“We’ve seen Uganda, Botswana, and South Africa saying that they will cooperate with the court – South Africa coming out Thursday, saying that they will comply with the domestic legal obligations to arrest President al-Bashir if he had to travel to South Africa. We think it’s encouraging that these countries have made these statements. We’re hoping that more countries will follow and be quite explicit in their commitment to the court,” observed du Plessis, who is based in South Africa's capital Pretoria.
Countries like Kenya, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are struggling to find appropriate mechanisms to mete out justice to purveyors of horrible crimes who have been arrested or have turned themselves in as part of a cessation of hostilities or peace agreement. Du Plessis says that the ICC respects the domestic national integrity of these states to work out how they are going to deliver justice to wrongdoers. But if called upon, the ICC will serve its members by setting up special tribunals to pursue horrific offenders.
However, the challenge of AU member states, says Anton du Plessis, must be met by the citizens of those states and the rights groups that speak out on their behalf. “And we do believe that this will put ultimately more and more pressure on the African Union, on African countries, to delegitimize President Omar al-Bashir to the point where there will be a groundswell of support, where it will become difficult for him to travel really, not only within Africa, but also beyond Africa. Ultimately, all of us will contribute to the international effort to bring him to justice,” he said.