Why African nations are pulling out of the ICC

EPA/PETER DEJONG / POOL

Emmanuel Altit (R), defense lawyer for former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo talks to prosecutor Fatou Bensouda (L), as they wait for the start of the trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, 28 January 2016.

Why African nations are pulling out of the ICC


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Botswana’s Foreign Minister Pelomoni Venson-Moitoi, who is a running for the position of African Union (AU) chief, has said that any African states unhappy with the International Criminal Court (ICC) should work to reform it from the inside rather than pulling out.

As reported by the Reuters news agency, the AU has grown increasingly divided over the ICC. But Venson-Moitoi said she believed an African war crimes court could be beefed up to work alongside its Hague-based counterpart.

Although South Africa has argued that the ICC’s Rome Statutes were at odds with its laws granting leaders diplomatic immunity, other African countries see the tribunal purely as an instrument of colonial justice that unfairly targets the continent.

“I don’t see why we should be pulling out. The good thing is that a few more members now, within the AU, agree that pulling out is not the solution. We should be working towards fixing,” Venson-Moitoi told Reuters in an interview, without elaborating.

After she spoke, Gambia announced it was also withdrawing from the ICC, calling it “an International Caucasian Court for the persecution and humiliation of people of colour, especially Africans”.

In other related news, Foreign Policy online reported that the ground appears to be crumbling under the court. South Africa’s decision to abandon the court has stunned the international community. That decision came hot on the heels of a vote by Burundi’s parliament to leave the court.

How did the ICC fall so far, so fast? And could its very existence be in doubt?

According to an analysis by FP, the nightmare scenario for the court is that the departure of a prominent power like South Africa will spark a coordinated exodus that some skeptical African leaders have long advocated.

For instance, Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, has become vitriolic toward the court. At his inauguration in May, he called the ICC a “bunch of useless people,” which prompted some Western diplomats to walk out of the ceremony.

Any further departures would diminish the court’s legitimacy and limit the scope for future investigations. Exiting states aren’t merely expressing displeasure; they are shrinking the court’s room to operate and undermining the court’s claim to be a bulwark against atrocities.

According to FP, however, even if there is a large-scale African exodus, the court could still function. International organisations are hard to kill, and there’s no reason to think that the dozens of ICC members in Europe and Latin America would follow the African lead. But an ICC with few African states would be a shell of its former self. And the governments that provide the bulk of the court’s funding, including Germany, France, Japan, and the United Kingdom, would likely question whether their millions of dollars in annual dues are being well spent.

The court’s fate may therefore hinge on coming deliberations of the African Union, the regional organisation that has already passed a series of resolutions critical of the court and its prosecutor.

The AU is likely to choose its successor to South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at its annual summit in January.

As reported by Reuters, Venson-Moitoi’s main rival for the AU chair is Kenyan foreign minister Amina Mohamed. And Kenya has also been leaning towards ICC withdrawal since charges were brought against President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, over links to post-election bloodshed in 2008 in which at least 1,200 people were killed.

The cases against both collapsed for lack of evidence.

Should she win, Venson-Moitoi has pledged to try to get the Tanzanian-based African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which unlike the ICC currently grants immunity to sitting leaders, to “work together” with the Hague tribunal.

Meanwhile, the outspoken 65-year-old has also advocated more robust and rigorous AU monitoring of regional elections as an antidote to the controversy, disputes and violence that habitually follow polls in many African countries.

“I’m quite aware of what it takes to run a fair election, to avoid abuse, to avoid conflict,” she said. “You must manage the whole process so that when the number comes out at the end, it confirms a clean process.”

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