Ahead of an African Union summit that begins Sunday, a key advisory body of the organization has condemned the International Criminal Court, saying its focus has been limited to Africa since its founding in 2002.
The Economic Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC) does not speak for the AU. However, its statements echo the complaints of African leaders who have pushed for member countries to quit the Rome-based court, which has jurisdiction in 124 nations over alleged cases of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
Last April, the AU charged the committee to come up with a joint position on the ICC. The committee is understood to have recommended that AU member states quit the ICC unless it meets three conditions, including giving heads of state immunity from prosecution.
That message was relayed in Kigali by ECOSOCC, which was chosen by civil society organizations across the continent.
ECOSOCC spokesman Joseph Chilengi told journalists in Kigali that the ICC is not independent, as it follows U.N. Security Council guidance. He argued that it would never indict North Americans or Europeans.
“The European Union provides over 70 percent of the ICC’s budget, something which also violates the Rome statute [that set up the court], which says that no one member state can pay more than 22 percent of the budget," Chilengi said. "And as we know, he who pays the piper calls the tune.”
Chilengi brushed aside a journalist’s point that the EU is not a state, saying that it behaves like one.
The ICC is funded by member states using a formula similar to the one used to fund the United Nations, which means wealthier states pay more.
Africa bias seen
Many people in Africa, including some African leaders, have argued that the ICC is biased against Africa. Of its 10 active investigations, only one is outside Africa. Kenya’s government is among several in Africa that have considered leaving the ICC.
Those who oppose leaving the ICC say withdrawal would leave African nations with less protection against human rights abuses.
Chilengi warned against a proposed amendment to the Rome statute that set up the ICC, one that would affect the U.N. peacekeeping forces known as the blue berets.
“The danger is this: If there is an amendment to the Rome statute that the blue berets will be allowed to arrest our leaders, then blue berets will not be allowed in member states,” he said.
Human Rights Watch commented that to give heads of state that are signatories of the Rome statute exemption from prosecution at the ICC would run totally counter to the statute.
HRW spokeswoman Elise Keppler told VOA that Nigeria, Senegal and Ivory Coast oppose moves at the summit to promote the AU's withdrawal from the ICC and raised objections at the discussions this past week in the Executive Council meetings.
South Sudan 'catastrophe'
The summit also faces a crisis over recent deadly violence South Sudan, where the United Nations has warned that a "catastrophe" awaits if a fragile truce reached this past week in the capital, Juba, fails to hold.
At least 300 people in the city were killed between July 8 and 11, in fighting between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and his longtime opponent, First Vice President Riek Machar, before violence subsided.
It remained unclear how the 53-nation body would formally address the crisis in South Sudan, which is Africa's newest nation and is not an AU member. U.N. officials said conditions in the impoverished country have been dramatically worsened by the theft of 4,500 tons of food supplies earmarked for the nation's neediest civilians.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has in recent days pressed the U.N. Security Council to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan, along with targeted sanctions against those found responsible for the latest fighting. But no formal action has yet been taken by the 15-member body.
Decision on AU leadership
The summit is also expected to make decisions on the leadership of the AU Commission, after current Chair Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma of South Africa announced this month that she was stepping down.
Officials are considering three candidates, including two foreign ministers, one from Botswana and the other from Equatorial Guinea. The third candidate is a former Ugandan vice president, who also is a former U.N. special envoy on HIV/AIDS.
VOA's Lou Lorscheider in Washington contributed to this report.