At the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York, the African Union reaffirmed its opposition to issuing an arrest warrant at the International Criminal Court for Sudan's president, in connection with crimes committed in the conflict in the country's Darfur region. Some observers have raised concern that the episode could create difficulty for future cooperation between Africa and the ICC, but other supporters of the court attribute less significance to the dispute. Derek Kilner has more from VOA's East Africa bureau in Nairobi.
Since even before the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo announced in July that he would seek an arrest warrant for Sudan's President, Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese government has been working to rally diplomatic support against such a move, and in favor of the U.N. Security Council issuing a deferral of the warrant request, a provision allowed for under article 16 of the International Criminal Court's charter.
Sudan had already secured the support of the African Union, as well as the Arab League, but the Sudanese delegation gave the move for a deferral a high profile at the recent General Assembly meeting. The country's vice-president, Ali Osman Taha, called the attempt to pursue President Bashir "a failed attempt at political and moral assassination."
Following a meeting on September 22, the African Union's Peace and Security Council issued a second communique, reiterating its support for deferring the warrant.
Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete, the chairman of the African Union, conveyed the group's position in his address to the General Assembly the following day. "It is the considered view of the African Union that the indictment of President Omar al-Bashir at this point in time will complicate the deployment of UNAMID and the management of the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. It is for this reason that the African Union sees deferment as the most expedient thing to do now. We are simply concerned with the best possible sequencing of measures so that the most immediate matters of saving lives and easing the sufferings of the people of Darfur are taken care of first," he said.
So far, the Security Council has taken no action. Deferral of the warrant request requires the approval of nine of the 15 members of the UN Security Council. Permanent members China and Russia have been supportive of Sudan's position, as have nonpermanent members from Africa, including South Africa, Burkina Faso, and Libya. But attaining the remaining required votes may prove difficult.
A vote for deferral will also have to escape a veto by one of the permanent members of the council. Western human rights activists have pounced on recent statements from France and Britain, indicating that they would support a deferral, but both countries have said this would require substantial changes in Sudan's behavior. The United States has expressed a similar position, but with harsher rhetoric towards Sudan.
Some observers have cautioned that the pursuit of President Bashir, in the face of African resistance, could threaten future African cooperation with the court.
One concern is that the court is giving the impression that it is unfairly targeting Africa. The cases it has taken up to date: Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, and Sudan are all in Africa. The head of the AU's Peace and Security Council Jean Ping, complained in an interview with the BBC this week that the court seemed to
be singling out Africa. Benin's President expressed a similar sentiment to Radio France International.
But Priscilla Nyokabi, the acting executive director of the Kenya chapter of the International Commission of Jurists, a human rights organization, rejects such reasoning.
"We think it's just a historical coincidence rather than a targeting of African states," she said. "Recently the ICC newsletter also said they are looking at Georgia and other countries. So it's not a deliberate attempt, so we human rights groups don't feel that way. And also in terms of human rights violations, you can't say if we get to you as a violator, you cannot say we should get other violators as well, you should answer to the violations that speak to you and not worry about who other people have been gotten by the ICC. So we don't think that that is a valid argument."
While there have been reports of some African countries threatening to pull out of the International Criminal Court, Issaka Souaré, a researcher on international law with the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa, says the African Union has gone out of its way to signal its support for international justice, while raising problems with the particular issue of a warrant for Mr. Bashir.
"If you look at the facts, of the 106 members of the ICC, 30 are from Africa, the largest single region in that regard. So I would not read much into such arguments unless they have been officially and expressly stated as such. African countries are not against the ICC. Even in its communique. The Peace and Security Council reiterates the AU's commitment to combating impunity. No one condones this. The issue is about the timing and the implications for this move on the peace process so there is no antagonism per se against the ICC," Souaré said.
Some observers have also warned that the case of Sudan will make those African countries that have not yet signed on to the ICC, Ethiopia and Rwanda, for example, even less likely to do so in the future. But Souaré points out that cases can still be brought in the ICC against countries that are not members of the court. "For this to prevent other African countries to join, it might, in the case of some countries, but it doesn't make much difference for you to be a signatory or not, because Sudan after all is not a signatory," Souaré said.
Nyokabi says that the leaders of such countries, many of whom have been accused of rights violations in their countries, were already hostile to the court, and would have been unlikely to join regardless of President Bashir's indictment.
"As to the leadership, they have their own individual reasons why they don't support the ICC. And each African country I believe has its own historical concerns. And you can give examples of them. You can give, say, the examples of President Kagame, or Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia, the political elite, it is not even a case of losing confidence, they just did not want the ICC from the beginning."
Perhaps of more concern is the possibility that African countries that have joined the court will be less inclined to actively support it in the future. Nyokabi says that there are challenges to getting Kenya, which has joined the court, to implement the legislation in Kenyan law, but says these have little to do with the case of Sudan. "The speed with which we are getting into the ICC jurisprudence needs to improve, but we are not sure that the Bashir case is going to slow it in any way. Kenya was slow even before [Mr.] Bashir, we are still slow. So it is not the Bashir case that is making us any slower."
Nyokabi points out that Kenyan rights activists are particularly concerned about keeping the International Criminal Court as a viable option in Africa, given the rights violations committed in the aftermath of last year's disputed presidential election, and the potential for future ethnic and political violence.