Future of ICC in doubt after African countries withdraw

Observers have noted that the withdrawals could be down to a perceived feeling that the ICC is biased against Africa. [Stringer/ Shutterstock]

The recent decision by South Africa, Burundi and Gambia to withdraw from the International Criminal Court has elicited mixed reactions while highlighting the relevance of the court in the wake of growing perceived marginalisation by African leaders. EURACTIV Germany reports.

While the three countries had unique and specific reasons of rescinding membership of the court, their actions have sent jitters across the continent with analysts fearing that their move would inspire more withdrawals among countries that feel ostracised by what has been referred to as a biased court that is only keen in advancing the interests of Western regimes and trying people of colour.

This is further supported by the fact that of the ten cases the court is currently investigating, and the three under preliminary investigations, nine are from Africa. Waning African support is cause for alarm, considering that out of the 124 signatories to the Rome Statute that created the court, 34 are from Africa, making the largest regional membership.

While Burundi cited exercising its sovereign powers by pulling out of the court, it is believed the office of the prosecutor of the court’s decision to investigate atrocities meted on civilians and human rights violation during last year’s political violence could have triggered its withdrawal.

South Africa, which has projected itself as a self- styled beacon of human rights in the continent, has caught the world by surprise with its intent to quit the court. It cited a conflict of the ICC’s Rome statutes with its domestic laws that grant leaders diplomatic immunity.

Its defiance was conspicuously displayed when it snubbed arresting Sudanese President Omar Bashir who has been charged with war crimes and genocide and has an arrest warrant out for him.

He would leave South Africa despite a local court ordering the government to exercise its fiduciary duty and hand him over to the ICC. South Africa then argued that it’s municipal laws gives leaders immunity from prosecution.

Gambia’s decision to leave is perhaps the biggest blow and mockery to the court and the principle of upholding human rights. The headquarters of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights are located in the country, and the ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, hailing from the country.

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Gambian information Minister Sheriff Bojang in a statement on the withdrawal said this had beenwarranted by the fact that the ICC, despite being called international criminal court, is, in fact, an international Caucasian court for the persecution and humiliation of people of colour, especially Africans.”

The perceived obsession of the court to go after sitting African leaders, analysts say, will inspire a mass withdrawal with other countries like Kenya, Namibia, Chad and Uganda having sent signals to that effect. “There is the general feeling among African leaders that they have willingly volunteered to be members of the court but are the ones who are heavily targeted. Again the perceived feeling of double standards by the court is igniting the discontent among the continental leaders.

The countries with veto powers in the UN including US, Russia and China have refused to ratify the Rome Statutes yet they lord it over the Africans. Then there is the feeling that atrocities committed in Syria haven’t been pursued by the court, although Syria is not a member of the ICC,” said Professor Murumbu Kiania who teaches International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of Nairobi Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies.

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This is corroborated by Gambia’s unsuccessful attempts to have the EU prosecuted for the deaths of thousands of African migrants trying to access its shores. It has also insisted that former UK prime Minister should face trial for his role in the Iraq war.

“These withdrawals are a massive blow to the many victims of especially state-sponsored violence in the continent. Africa still needs the International Criminal Court as a court of last resort and any institution upholding the law and human rights should have nothing to fear.

Instead of focusing its attention and discontent on the court, it should direct its universal justice campaign to the international community through the right institutions like the United Nations,” said Benjamin Aluka, an international law scholar based in Tanzania.

Professor Kiania agrees, insisting that a mass walk-out by African countries would not only see African countries lose the moral ground on international justice discourses but would be a betrayal to its people. “Instead of leaving the court, African countries should leverage on the power of their numbers as a bloc to push for changes to the court from within while making sure that justice is applied across the board,” he said.

While a sizeable number of African countries have insisted they have faith in the court and support its operations going forward, the marked exit of the three countries, happening for the first time since the court’s 18 years of existence, is rekindling African nations’ quest for pan Africanism and stamping out neocolonialism and the court, analysts say, has become the scapegoat.

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“It is a tough time for the court. And even though a good number of African countries have expressed confidence in it, the official position by the African Union calling for alternative dispute resolution mechanisms and African mechanisms of dealing with African problems puts the future of the court in a precarious situation, and this is a huge loss for victims of the many African conflicts especially those that are state-sponsored,” said Dr Dorothy Mulato a Kenyan career diplomat.

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