Some 130 groups from across Africa are calling on governments to reaffirm their support for the International Criminal Court based in The Hague. They’ve released an open letter in advance of this week’s AU summit in Addis Ababa.
The groups say the ICC is a “crucial court of last resort.” But there has been growing criticism that the court focuses too much on Africa, including the charges filed against Kenya’s leaders stemming from the 2007/2008 post-election violence.
Jemima Kariri is a senior researcher at the International Crime in Africa Program at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa. She said, “I mean as far as international justice is concerned, the ICC was established as the only international tribunal that deals with international crimes – crimes of the gravest nature.”
She said that victims of human rights abuses need to see justice done – if courts in their own countries fail or are not able to do so.
“Africa was at the forefront of the establishment of this court. And because most of the jurisdictions in Africa are not really well suited or well equipped to deal with some of these crimes, then it is necessary -- especially the 34 countries that have signed up to the court – to make sure that they support the court in order for it to continue working on issues around impunity.”
Kariri described the court as being “quite successful in Africa” despite challenges.
“Quite a few countries have actually reached out to the court to assist in dealing with international crimes that have been committed, for example, in Cote d’Ivoire, in Uganda, in Central Africa, in Mali, as well as the DRC. Despite the fact that it takes quite a long time, I would say that it has been quite a big success, but of course a lot still needs to be done. And you must acknowledge the fact that the court of still young,” she said.
Luke Tembo, spokesman and advocacy officer for the Center for Human Rights and Rehabilitation in Lilongwe, Malawi, rejected criticism that the ICC focuses too much on Africa.
“Yeah, that has been the argument. But if you look at the issue of African leaders – if you focus on the rule of law on most of the African leaders – you find that they fall short of adhering to the principles of criminal justice. Those who are saying that they focus much on Africa it’s because you will find that leaders in Africa actually perpetrate violence and abuses.”
Tembo said Malawi supported the ICC last year by refusing to host an AU summit that Sudanese President Omar al Besheer had planned to attend. Mr. Besheer has been indicted by the court on war crimes and crimes against humanity stemming from the Darfur conflict.
The groups said the effort by Kenya to withdraw from the International Criminal Court has put African governments in an awkward position. Tembo and others say that “any withdrawal would send the wrong signal about Africa’s commitment to protect and promote human rights and to reject impunity.”
“That poses a threat to criminal justice in Africa. But we will push for the African leaders to be sober enough to look at the advantages of having the ICC around. If African nations pull out, then there will be untold violations and abuses of human rights with impunity,” he said.
Sulemana Braimah is deputy executive director at the Media Foundation for West Africa in Accra, Ghana. He said, “For most of the cases that have been handled by the ICC involving African countries or African governments, it is at the initiative of the countries themselves. If you take Mali or the recent case of Cote d’Ivoire, it is at the instance of the countries themselves. And if you take Darfur in Sudan, it is a U.N. initiative.”
As for the case of Kenya, Braimah doesn’t see the ICC as targeting Africa.
“We are not there yet to make that legitimate and concrete argument that the court targets Africans. Even if it does, and it is the case that violations do occur, it’s OK to have an institution that seeks to improve conditions in Africa,” he said.
In 2008, Kenya’s leaders had agreed to establish a special tribunal for cases related to post-election violence. About 1,100 people were killed. However, those efforts ground to a halt and the ICC prosecutor then opened an investigation.
Kenya's Deputy President William Ruto and former broadcaster Joshua Arap Sang are currently on trial before the ICC. They’re charged with crimes against humanity. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta faces similar charges. His trial is scheduled to begin on November 12th.
Braimah said that Africa has “regional and continental mechanisms” that are supposed to address human rights abuses and other crimes. But he said they are often not respected and their decisions ignored.
“The Media Foundation – the organization that I work with – for example, has had two cases against The Gambia at the ECOWAS court. In both cases The Gambia was asked to compensate the people involved. These were journalists. One was in 2009, the other 2011. To date, the country has flatly disregarded the court’s verdict and nothing is happening.”
ECOWAS is the Economic Community of West African States.
Jemima Kariri of South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies said the ICC faces the “politics of prosecuting the powerful.” She says if the people indicted were ordinary citizens, “no one would talk much about it.”