In the weeks gone by, Africa been home to disturbing news for the causes of human rights and international justice. Last month, South Africa, Burundi and Gambia announced their decision to withdraw from the International Criminal Court. There is great fear among citizens and civil society organizations on the continent that these moves might spark a mass exodus of African states from the ICC.
In his defense of the country’s intent to withdraw from the court, the Gambian Information Minister Sheriff Bojang called the ICC the “International Caucasian Court for the persecution and humiliation of people of color.” Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh has often been accused of human rights abuses and clamping down on political opponents.
Lawmakers in Burundi, which has been embroiled in a political crisis since President Pierre Nkurunziza decided last year to run for a third term in office, voted overwhelmingly last month to leave the ICC, accusing the Hague-based court of being a “tool used to try and change power.” The country’s decision to exit the ICC came weeks after the U.N. Human Rights Council voted to create a Commission of Inquiry for Burundi following serious human rights violations such as killings, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence.
During the recent independence celebrations in Zambia, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni joined the the attack on the court, calling the ICC “useless.” There is speculation that other countries such as Kenya and Namibia are monitoring the ICC withdrawals with keen interest and might also quit the court.
Demonizing the ICC has simply become a safety valve for leaders who have an aversion to accountability. The exodus from the court by these countries is not for the benefit of African people, but for the benefit of leaders who want to keep ruling their countries with an iron fist. Simply put, African leaders want to guarantee themselves impunity for crimes they commit against their own citizens.
The ICC was created as an international court of last resort to prosecute crimes like torture and genocide when national courts are unable or unwilling to do so. Voiceless and powerless citizens — like the ones who suffered atrocities in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and the Central African Republic — have the ICC as a last resort to justice. International courts can play a unique role in offering justice. For example, after years of suffering atrocities at the hands of Charles Taylor, the victims in Liberia finally found justice from an international court: Taylor was found guilty in 2012 of 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious violations of international humanitarian law, including murder, forced labor and slavery, recruitment of child soldiers and rape.
Earlier this year, international justice played a role in holding Chadian dictator Hissene Habre to account. During his eight-year rule, an estimated 40,000 people were killed and another 200,00 tortured. On May 30, the Extraordinary African Chambers in Senegal handed down a life sentence to the former Chad ruler, another example of the importance of international criminal justice to survivors who suffered years of rape, sex slavery, war crimes and crimes against humanity under his rule. His victims and a small group of lawyers campaigned for 17 years to see the former dictator answer for his crimes.
Granted, the ICC is not perfect. The U.N. Security Council, which seems to operate at whims of the powerful nations such as the United States, Britain, China and Russia, plays a large role in referring cases to the court. (The United States is not a part of the ICC, for example.) Critics of the court in Africa have also faulted the court’s indifference toward atrocities committed in Iraq by the United States and Britain under the leadership of President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair. All this has tempted some African heads of state to think the ICC was created to get at African leaders whose leadership does not stay well with the West. While it is true that nine out of 10 pending cases before the court are African, all but one of the African cases under the ICC were brought by the African states themselves or the U.N. Security Council.
A number of African countries recently have seen brutal crackdowns of critics of the government, whether through arbitrary arrests or cold-blooded extermination. In Zimbabwe, for instance, government critics continue to live in fear, with so many suffering various forms of human rights abuses. Currently in the Congo, citizens opposed to Joseph Kabila’s attempt to extend his rule are being dealt with with a heavy hand.
As such, more withdrawals by African nations would be a huge betrayal to African citizens’ access to justice. The African Union must abandon its ICC withdrawal agenda and instead focus on strengthening the continent’s relationship with the court. Most importantly, African leaders in their individual capacities should expressly reaffirm their support for the ICC, as Botswana, Malawi, Zambia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and Senegal did recently. Doing so would not be a sign of weakness or a threat to their power, but would be in the best interests of their own citizens to whom they are primarily accountable.
Fletcher Simwaka is the advocacy coordinator with the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation in Malawi.