Considering Africa in the International Criminal Court

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Founded in 2002 to investigate and try war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, the International Criminal Court (ICC) was designed to be “a gift of hope to future generations.” But less than twenty years after its inception the court seems to be at risk of disintegrating. The ICC has gained a reputation as an institution held over from the era of colonialism, targeting the crimes of African leaders while granting impunity to American and European ones. If the ICC fails to rectify this image, it will certainly lose the fight for international criminal justice.

Image courtesy of OSeveno [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Criticisms of the ICC are rampant, with accusations that the court is grossly
expensive
to operate,
inefficient,
and lacking ‘teeth’.
But the stance that poses the greatest threat to the institution is the charge
that the ICC unfairly targets African
nations. Of the eleven
situations currently under investigation by the court, ten of them involve
African nations.

Part of this bias against African nations can be attributed to
political realities. Many state-perpetuated human rights tragedies of the past
decade including the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar and the mass
atrocities committed during the Syrian civil war were carried out by states
that are not signatories
to the Rome Statute, and are therefore outside of the ICC’s jurisdiction. Comparable
challenges have emerged when the court has pursued cases in other regions of
the world. In April 2019, the ICC announced that it was ending
preliminary investigations into alleged war crimes carried out by the Taliban
and Afghan and American armed forces in Afghanistan. Although the Office of the
Prosecutor justified its decision by citing
the case’s slim chance of conviction, the ICC met with fierce accusations
of putting American political interests over the pursuit of justice. For these
reasons, it can be politically-convenient to prioritize crimes in Africa

The African bias issue came to a head in 2016 when Burundi, South
Africa, and Gambia withdrew from the Rome Statue, calling
the court “a political instrument and weapon used by the west to enslave”
African nations. Although Gambia did later rejoin
the ICC, Burundi is no longer considered a signatory and South Africa is in the
process of formally withdrawing.
The events of 2016 triggered fears of a mass African exodus from the ICC.
Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned against such a movement, reminding
the International Community that Africa “was [the court’s] most enthusiastic
supporter” at its founding. Three years on no additional states have signaled a
retrenchment from the ICC, and it would seem that Mr. Annan’s fears are
allayed. However, African leaders have continued to criticize the court. President
Paul Kagame of Rwanda justified his country’s decision not to ratify the Rome
Statute by calling
the ICC “politics disguised as international justice.” Kenyan President Uhuru
Kenyatta accused
the institution of becoming “a tool of global power politics,” while Ugandan
President Yoweri Museveni dismissed
the court as “a bunch of useless people who should not be taken seriously.”

Fears of an African exodus may have been curtailed,  but two new ICC announcements may disrupt
that. On July 8, 2019 the ICC handed
down
a conviction for crimes against humanity against Bosco Ntaganda of the
Democratic Republic of Congo. On the same day, international prosecutors announced
their intention to seek a case against Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz for war crimes
and crimes against humanity in Mali.

The charges against Al Hassan and Ntaganda are significant, including
sexual violence, mass killings, and conscription of child soldiers during the
2012 conflict
in Northern Mali and the Union of Congolese Patriots massacres,
respectively. The resolution of the Ntaganda case could actually be seen as a
net gain for the ICC, which has historically struggled
to secure convictions. But neither of these factors may influence African
leaders who continue to see the ICC as a colonial remnant, remembering that
Burundi and South Africa’s withdrawals were announced mere months after the ICC
convicted
Congolese leader Jean-Pierre Bemba (although his conviction has since been overturned). Particularly
when the ICC has nine
ongoing preliminary examinations outside of Africa, it is difficult for the
court to combat allegations of targeting Africa, however justified those cases
may be. 

While other African nations have not followed South Africa and Burundi
in exiting the Rome Statute, it is clear that leaders continue to be
disillusioned with the ICC’s seeming focus on Africa. Whether or not the new
developments in Mr. Al Hassan and Mr. Ntaganda’s cases renew the call for
reform, the ICC must move beyond its post-colonial narrative if it is to remain
a credible institution for international justice.


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