NAIROBI, KENYA — Rwanda’s justice minister says the International Criminal Court only delivers “selective justice” - mostly targeting African leaders. His comments come as the world marks the 15th anniversary of the statute that established the court. Some are questioning whether Africa still needs the ICC, as discontent with the institution grows.
On July 17, 1998, delegates at an international conference in Rome voted to form the so-called “court of last resort” to try perpetrators of genocide, war crimes and other major offenses where local courts were unable or unwilling to act.
Today the International Criminal Court - based in The Hague - has cases involving eight African countries including Kenya, Sudan and Ivory Coast.
Rwanda is one of the countries never to sign the Rome Statute, and remains one of the strongest critics of the court’s activities.
Justice minister defends Rwanda
Rwandan Justice Minister Johnston Busingye told VOA that while Rwanda supports the concept of international justice, he feels the ICC has unfairly targeted Africans.
“Africa seems to be taking the lion’s share of the ICC, for example, in the last one decade or so. So our position has really been this kind of justice is selective, and we do not want to have international justice being used as a tool, or being perceived as a tool to control Africa,” said Busingye.
When Rwanda was confronted with bringing justice to the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide it pursued two paths. One was the establishment of a U.N.-backed international tribunal to try suspected criminals. The other was a community-based system of so-called gacaca courts.
Busingye said the international court, where trials still are ongoing, has fallen short of its potential of holding the ringleaders of genocide accountable.
But Busingye said, “By and large, gacaca delivered immensely, in terms of number we have delivered on about 1.5 million cases that we probably would never have dealt with,” said .
Human rights groups states its case
Human rights groups say that while the gacaca courts did speed up trials of an enormous number of cases, they fell far short of international legal standards.
Across the continent, support for the ICC is waning as former supporters of the court now have turned their backs on The Hague.
In May, the African Union voted to refer back to Kenya the case against that country’s president and his deputy for deadly violence that followed the 2007 presidential election. AU Chairman and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn accused the court of “race hunting.”
The ICC denies it is targeting any one region or ethnicity, saying decisions on cases are based on the law, available evidence and where national courts have not taken action.
While some African leaders may be worried they could be next to appear in at The Hague, the real point of the court is to protect the victims of violence where domestic courts have failed, according to Leslie Haskell, counsel for the International Justice program at Human Rights Watch.
“People often don’t talk about the fact that the ICC and the court is meant to provide justice to victims and the fact that the court only gets involved when national courts are unwilling or unable to prosecute,” said Haskell.
Discontent is not limited to African leadership. A poll of Kenyan citizens published last week showed only 39 percent want the trials against Kenya’s leaders to remain at The Hague, while the rest would prefer they return to Kenya, or be dropped altogether.
Stephen Musau, chair of the Rights Promotion and Protection Center in Kenya, said despite the mood of the country, the fact remains that Kenya so far has failed to bring the perpetrators of the post-election violence to justice.
“The failure is what led us to the ICC and that failure cannot be blamed on Kenyans. It is the state machinery, which failed to show the way in terms of how we deal with these issues and because we failed in that, we are supporting the ICC,” said Musau.
Not surprisingly, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto have led a major lobbying effort against the ICC. Their trials at the court begin later this year.
But it was in Kenya, after the disputed election, where the phrase was coined: “Don’t be vague, let’s go to The Hague.” It is clear now that tune has changed.