The Future of the International Criminal Court in Africa (Part I): Tracing the Roots of the Love/Hate Relationship

This guest blog is written by Kiconco Katabaazi Patrick who is a candidate on the UCC LLM International Human Rights Law & Public Policy programme.

Introduction

In July 2018, the International Criminal Court (ICC) will celebrate 20 years since the Rome Statute was opened for signature on 17th July 1998, thereby establishing a global criminal court whose idea had been mooted several decades back.

Over the course of two blog articles, I will shed light on the genesis of the ICC, the relationship the Court has had with African countries and how the creation of an African version of ICC in the name of the African Court of Justice and Human and People’s Rights is taking shape .This new Court is expected to try international crimes including those under the jurisdiction of ICC, thereby opening debate on the future of ICC in Africa.

Tracing the origins of ICC

The idea to set up a world criminal court owes its origins in 19th century during the Franco- Prussian War. In 1872, Gustav Moynier – a Swiss jurist and one of the founding fathers of the International Committee of the Red Cross advocated for the establishment of a permanent court to respond to crimes committed in interstate conflicts .This idea did not gain traction largely because the impact of war at that time was not felt by many states in Europe.

The effects of First and Second World Wars played a very significant role in the establishment of an international court responsible for prosecuting perpetrators of crimes against humanity, breach of peace and crimes of aggression. The genesis of this deep seated desire has roots in the Versailles Treaty of 1919 between Germany and Victorious Allies that signalled the end of the First World War. However, it was not until 1945 that active steps were taken towards setting up a court to prosecute perpetrators of serious international crimes. This culminated in the Nuremberg Tribunal and Tokyo war crimes trials established under the 1945 Nuremberg Charter and International Military Tribunal for Far East Charter respectively.

It should be noted that the Nuremburg and Tokyo trials and their founding charters were limited in scope. The main focus was on crimes committed in the Second World War and did not address future similar events – thereby leaving a lacuna in the international judicial system. The desire to establish a permanent international criminal tribunal/court gained momentum at the 179th plenary meeting of the UN General Assembly in December 1948 in which Resolution A/RES/3/260B specifically mandated the International Law Commission (ILC) to explore the necessity and prospects of setting up an International Criminal Tribunal.

The International Law Commission went ahead to produce the first draft in 1950s but further progress on this process was affected by disagreements occasioned by Cold War politics. Work on the statute was rejuvenated in early1990s by two major factors namely conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Rwanda as well as the end of Cold War which made consensus building for the promoters of the ICC much easier than ever before.

The ILC produced the final draft on International Criminal Court statute in 1994 which was considered at the UN Diplomatic Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Establishment of an International Criminal Court. The resulting Rome Statute created the first ever International Criminal Court (ICC) with a universal mandate to try perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and crimes of aggression.

The creation of the ICC was touted by experts and leading politicians as a momentous step towards a world of accountability and peace. This optimism was equally espoused by Kofi Annan, then UN General Secretary, when he stated in his speech:

“For nearly half a century – almost as long as the United Nations has been in existence – the General Assembly has recognized the need to establish such a court to prosecute and punish persons responsible for crimes such as genocide. Many thought … that the horrors of the Second World War – the camps, the cruelty, the exterminations, the Holocaust – could never happen again. And yet they have. In Cambodia, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Rwanda. Our time – this decade even – has shown us that man’s capacity for evil knows no limits. Genocide … is now a word of our time, too, a heinous reality that calls for a historic response.”

The memories of the genocide in Rwanda and the effects of wars in Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo/Serbia were still very fresh and this perhaps provided motivation for many countries to sign up to the Rome Statute. The other motivation may be deduced from the desire by some leaders whose countries were facing internal threats to create a platform whereby rivals who had taken up arms against the state would be neutralised by threats of indictments. It has been suggested that President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda – one of the earliest supporters of the ICC – was largely motivated by a belief that the court would assist him end a decade long war championed by the notorious Joseph Kony of Lord’s Resistance Army in the Northern part of Uganda.

It can be safely argued that while some proponents were desirous of seeing a world court that would contain international crimes thereby promoting world peace and harmony, the mandate of the court to some remained narrow – as evidenced by events that have characterised the implementation of the Rome Statute.

How Africa became a focus of the ICC

The wheels of justice started spinning at ICC headquarters in The Hague leading to the arrest and detention of Thomas Lubanga. By 30th November 2011, Charles Taylor (the former President of Liberia), Germain Katanga, Ngudjolo Chui, Jean Pierre Bemba, Callixte Mbarushimana and Laurent Gbagbo (the former Ivorian President) had been apprehended by the ICC.

From the word go, the African continent became the main area of ICC operations largely because most heinous crimes were ostensibly being committed on the continent. Moreover, African leaders themselves sought the court’s intervention and were very enthusiastic in referring the initial cases for prosecution. While it is true that the arrest and detention of high profile figures such as Charles Taylor and Laurent Gbagbo attracted mixed reactions across the African continent largely because of their status as ex-Presidents, the arrests also demonstrated the vulnerability of future heads of State particularly in Africa. However, this issue did not become contentious at that point. It was rather the case of President Omar Al-Bashir of Sudan that propelled the loud voice of resentment and resistance to the ICC by many African Heads of State and Government largely because it became apparent that the ICC was getting closer and closer to the gates of their palatial presidential palaces and statehouses.

The indictment of Al-Bashir seemed to have surprised many Heads of State since Sudan was not a state party to the Rome Statute. In addition; they seemed to have imagined that the referral system by the UN Security Council (UNSC) was farfetched because of the UN rigorous processes. That was until 2015, when the UNSC referred the Darfur crisis to ICC for investigation by Resolution 1593. This culminated in the issuance of warrants of arrest against the President of Sudan, among others for crimes against humanity and other crimes related to genocide, thereby effectively putting African leaders on unprecedented collision course with the ICC. African leaders under the umbrella continental body of the African Union challenged the institution of the ICC and requested the court to suspend warrants of arrests, but to no avail.

On 3rd July 2009, the 13th African Union Summit of Heads of State in Libya unanimously resolved to defy the ICC and not to cooperate in any endeavours to apprehend and hand over the Sudanese President Al-Bashir.

The ICC-Africa affair was further complicated by the warrant of arrest in the cases of Muammar Gaddafi and Saif Gaddafi and the subsequent summons issued in the cases against Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto – the President and Vice-President of Kenya respectively. These new cases galvanised resistance of some African Heads against the ICC. Consequently, the African Union passed numerous resolutions calling for the suspension of active trials involving Heads of States and barred any action against any sitting Head of State or anyone acting in that capacity from being subjected to ICC jurisdiction until their concerns were addressed by the ICC and UNSC.

The Governments of Burundi, South Africa and The Gambia initiated processes aimed at withdrawing from ICC .The decision by these countries to withdraw from the ICC was cited with approval at the African Union General Assembly and ultimately inspired the assemblage to unanimously adopt ‘the ICC withdrawal strategy’ recommending member states to follow suit.

While the effect of ‘the ICC withdrawal strategy’ remains a subject of intense debate, the move is arguably the clearest expression of interest to quit the Rome Statute by African countries to date.

The crux of the dispute between Africa and ICC

From the onset, the indictment of President Al-Bashir reignited the debate on the sizzling issue of sovereignty and immunity of Heads of State. The issue of immunity had seemingly been resolved in 2002 (the same year ICC came into force) by the verdict of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the widely reported Arrest Warrant case in which that court held that diplomatic immunity extended to:

“Diplomatic and consular agents and certain holders of high-ranking office in a State, such as the Head of State, Head of Government and Minister for Foreign Affairs.”

From the traditional international law perspective, the immunity for a Head of State/Head of Government in respect to acts done in both an official and private capacity remains assured for as long as such a Head of State remains that position. This school of thought regarding acts done in a personal capacity changed in light of the Pinochet case in which Lord Browne-Wilkinson held that an ex-Head of State has no immunity for acts done in a private capacity while he was Head of State.

However, by signing the Rome Statute state parties had consciously or inadvertently waived all probable immunities under international law and customs for Head of State and other state officials as regards to crimes under the jurisdiction of the ICC, as evidenced by Article 27 of the Rome Statute:

  1. This Statute shall apply equally to all persons without any distinction based on official capacity. In particular, official capacity as a Head of State or Government, a member of a Government or parliament, an elected representative or a government official shall in no case exempt a person from criminal responsibility under this Statute, nor shall it, in and of itself, constitute a ground for reduction of sentence.

  2. Immunities or special procedural rules which may attach to the official capacity of a person whether under national or international law shall not bar the court from exercising its jurisdiction over such a person.

In addition, Article 13b of the Rome Statute provides for the mandate of the Security Council to make referrals to ICC, which has been interpreted by the ICC Trial Chamber to mean that such referral is capable of extending court’s jurisdiction to non-party states.

Different scholars and politicians have argued African leaders were tricked into signing the Rome Statute and that they were not alive to the wide implications this had on their immunity and state sovereignty .This view is espoused by Professor Mahoomed Mamdani who asserts that African member states joined in unthinkingly and not knowing that the ICC was likely to be used as tool of oppression for powerful states.

I strongly disagree with a proposition that African leaders were outwitted or that in fact they unthinkingly joined the ICC, largely because the objectives of the court were comprehensible and largely conspicuous as evidenced from annals of history dating from the Nuremburg Tribunal and the final text of the International Law Commission. The spirit of the Rome Statute from the onset could not have been articulated better by anyone than Kofi Annan, then UN General Secretary, when he emphatically avowed:

“In the prospect of an international criminal court lies the promise of universal justice. That is the simple and soaring hope of this vision. We are close to its realisation. We will do our part to see it through till the end. We ask you … to do yours in our struggle to ensure that no ruler, no State, no junta and no army anywhere can abuse human rights with impunity. Only then will the innocents of distant wars and conflicts know that they, too, may sleep under the cover of justice; that they, too, have rights, and that those who violate those rights will be punished.”

It is unquestionably clear that in circumstances such as the ones under which party states signed the Rome Statute, there was an overwhelming desire for the creation of an international court that would hold anyone liable and accountable. Thus, any suggestion that some member states were not aware of the nature of likely implications of the Rome Statue is either unfathomable or simply in bad faith.

Perhaps what seems to be of more concern is the perception that the AU has regarding the UNSC referral process which has been termed as “unfair”, and in some cases deemed to be “selective”. At the annual meeting of 123 ICC state parties in 2013, Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister acknowledged that the ICC was “no longer a court for all” and more ardently this popular criticism was summed up by President of Chad Idriss Deby after being elected African Union Chairman in 2016 thus; “Elsewhere in the world, many things happen, many flagrant violations of human rights, but nobody cares.”

The conduct of the UNSC’s handling of requests from the African Union may have been less than satisfactory, but that cannot be blamed on the ICC but rather on the statute which created an alternative powerbase at the UN where non-party states could sanction or veto any proposals relating to the ICC depending on their own interests. This means that countries such as Russia and USA, which are non-party states, can veto any resolution at the UNSC that is not in tandem with their own interests which has the potential to create double standards and ultimately defeat the principle of equality for all before the law.

Whereas the foregoing criticism is reasonable, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the African continent has 5 seats at the UNSC and African representatives voted alongside other members on the question of impugned referrals to the ICC – which further reflects the lack of unanimity of African Union member states on the subject matter.

Further, it is equally vital to emphasize that, beyond the two cases at the ICC under UNSC referral and perhaps the unique case of Kenya where the ICC Prosecutor exercised proprio motu powers; all other cases on the African continent were self-referrals to the ICC by party states.

This suggests that the alleged issue of targeting African leaders can only be viewed in the unique context of cases of Al-Bashir and Gaddafi respectively and in my view may not be support this often touted accusation. What remains undeniably apparent is that the UNSC has remained less enthusiastic about other similar cases elsewhere such as Syria, Iraq, Burma and other places which cast doubt on the efficacy of this referral system under the UNSC.

The second part of this analysis will continue by examining the potential for an “African Criminal Court” – as proposed by the AU to establish the African Court of Justice and Human and People’s Rights.