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Africa and the ICC: AU Not Speaking for All

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Africa and the ICC: AU Not Speaking for All

Posted by Laura Heaton on July 13, 2009

The debate coming from Africa over the International Criminal recently kicked up an extra decibel following the decision by the African Union to side with wanted war criminal and President of Sudan Omar al-Bashir. From his prominent soapbox as the current chair of the African Union, Libyan President Moammar Qaddafi’s push to see the AU officially ignore the warrant for Bashir’s arrest was certainly disturbing, and the member states’ decision to back him up was disheartening – some analysts even heralded the move as “the most serious threat to the ICC” since the U.S. opposed the Court in 2002.  But classifying Qaddafi’s rhetoric and the AU’s decision as representative of the “African response” to the Court belies the full breadth of perspectives on the ICC being voiced by Africans.

To be sure, if the ICC is to weather this fractious debate, governments and institutions need to voice their unequivocal support for the Court. In particular, as my colleague David Sullivan recently pointed out, three governments have been noticeably absent from this debate – Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic – and it’s about time we heard from them about why they referred cases to the ICC. (In fact, Uganda’s foreign minister stated just today that his government would indeed arrest Bashir if he sets foot in Uganda.)

But individuals and coalitions are speaking up – though with decidedly less hype than the media reported Qaddafi’s and the AU’s condemnation – so as a counter argument to some of the backlash and cowardly hemming and hawing, here’s the short-list of interesting reactions in favor of the Court from the last couple of weeks.

Clearly, prominent African civil society leaders anticipated that the Court would face a tough crowd at the African Union summit. A coalition of civil society representatives, led by Nobel Prize winner Warathi Maathai and Desmond Tutu, issued a statement in the lead up to the summit, urging African countries to support the Court’s work in Sudan as a critical step toward establishing "justice and accountability for the peoples of Sudan." As the authors of the statement and an op-ed (in French) point out:

The people of Darfur deserve more than negotiating warlords forgiving each other for the violence – including brutal sexual violence – they have perpetrated primarily against women, children and other non-combatants.

Former U.N. chief Kofi Annan also recently had a powerful op-ed in the New York Times voicing support for the ICC, focusing on the importance of African leaders to stand up against impunity, even when “one of their own” is the accused.

In my view, this outcry against justice demeans the yearning for human dignity that resides in every African heart. It also represents a step backward in the battle against impunity.

One must begin by asking why African leaders shouldn’t celebrate this focus on African victims. Do these leaders really want to side with the alleged perpetrators of mass atrocities rather than their victims? Is the court’s failure to date to answer the calls of victims outside of Africa really a reason to leave the calls of African victims unheeded?

Late last week, in his capacity as the former mediator for Kenya, Annan acted on this sentiment by handing over a confidential list of names of people thought to be responsible for inciting the post-election violence that erupted in Kenya in early 2008. Drawing up this list of potential culprits is one of the first steps toward deciding whether the ICC will investigate the cases.

I am also reminded of the poignant reaction of ICC deputy prosecutor Fatou Bensouda when I recently asked her in an interview to respond to criticism that the Court is unfairly focused on Africa. Here’s what she said: