African nations must rejoin the ICC

It is not without irony that Burundi, Gambia and South Africa left the International Criminal Court in 2016, which was declared the “Year of Human Rights in Africa.” Members of the African Union left on the claims that the ICC unfairly targets Africa. This assertion has been heralded with cynicism by Burundi. The African Union is divided on the matter of cooperating with the ICC.

The ICC, established by the Rome Statue in 1998, entered into force in 2002. It has four core areas: crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes and crimes of aggression, which have no statute of limitations.

Interestingly enough, the ICC has, in its short tenure, been investigating the Central African Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Sudan and Uganda.

Today, Burundi is in the midst of a constitutional crisis. Its president violated the constitution in 2015 by seeking a third term in office. A failed coup to remove him has created a humanitarian crisis plagued by unlawful killings, rape, disappearances, arbitrary arrests and imprisonment.

Due to the lack of resolution of the internal unrest and prolonged violence, this landlocked country has secured the spotlight of international interest.

In order to escape censure and prosecution, Burundi has opted out of the ICC. Burundi denounced the ICC as an instrument of the West used to punish African nations, an echo from a half-century ago when African countries became independent and floated the danger of neo-colonialism.

Gambia failed to employ the ICC to punish the European Union for the deaths of thousands of fleeing African asylum seekers in the Mediterranean. As a result, in a huff it branded the ICC as the “International Caucasian Court,” accusing it of “persecution and humiliation of people of color.”

South Africa’s decision to pull out of the ICC also strikes a serious note. For one, Nelson Mandela was a strong advocate of the ICC as he was involved in its creation. Jacob Zuma also hosted an African Union summit in 2015, steadfastly refusing to execute the ICC’s warrant on Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir. Al-Bashir committed war crimes and genocide—crimes against humanity. Zuma’s inaction seriously challenged the authority and prestige of the court.

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta is still smarting from his ICC trial for postelection violence and crimes against humanity. In 2011, he answered the Court’s summons for pre-trial examination. His highly spirited defense resulted in a dismissal of charges, but the dismissal did not make the unpleasant experience less humiliating. Kenyatta plans for the African Union to quit the ICC en masse, proclaiming that it unfairly targets Africa and its leaders.

Cote d’Ivoire favors the ICC in the prosecution of its former President Laurent Gbagbo and his wife for crimes against humanity, genocide, killings and rapes. Similarly, Guinea is grateful for the ICC’s investigation of the 2009 mass graves, torture and killings of civilians during a civil war. Botswana, Gabon, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Tunisia have also expressed support of the ICC.

Yet, it is undeniable that there is a strong current of opposition to the ICC by powerful African leaders. The withdrawal from its protection leaves African countries open to the vagaries of their own leaders, who, in documented cases, are corrupt and act with impunity and malice. They may try to hide behind spurious claims of racism or exaggerated harassment, but the stubborn facts belie them.

African withdrawal surely weakens the ICC. The ICC has no army to impose its will; it has inspectors, jurists, magistrates and prosecutors of all races and nationalities to carry out its mandates within the United Nations.

Seventy years after Nuremberg, the African Union has thrown the gauntlet down to international law and prosecution of serious crimes against humanity.

Only by voting will these countries rejoin the ICC for the benefit of their own people and the benefit of international communities.