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Putting Africa on trial?

January 25, 2009

Look down the list of the cases the International Criminal Court is pursuing – Congo, Central African Republic, Darfur, Uganda – and it doesn’t take long to spot the connection.

Of the dozen arrest warrants the court has issued, all have been against African rebels or officials. On Monday, the court begins its first trial - of Thomas Lubanga, accused of recruiting child soldiers to wage a gruesome ethnic war in northeastern Congo. Earlier this month, former Congolese rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba was in court for a decision on whether to confirm charges of ordering mass rape to terrorise civilians in the Central African Republic.

The judges are also deciding whether to indict their first head of state, Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, accused by the court’s prosecutor of instigating genocide and other war crimes in Darfur. All those being pursued by the prosecutor reject the accusations against them.

There is no doubt there were atrocities in all the conflicts in question – families, villages and countries scarred for ever by murders, rapes, mutilations, kidnappings and burnings.

The question is why the court is only targeting conflicts in Africa, which may have a higher proportion of troubles than other continents, but certainly has no monopoly on evil. Ongoing or recent conflicts elsewhere include Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia-Georgia, Israel-Palestinians and Sri Lanka among others.

“We have the feeling that this court is chasing Africa,” Benin’s president, Thomas Boni Yayi, commented last year of the moves to prosecute Sudanese President Bashir. Boni Yayi is no maverick. He is the leader of a peaceful pro-Western country with a record of democracy as good as any on the continent.

One explanation for the ICC’s focus on Africa could be that justice systems on the continent are not in a position to pursue those accused of war crimes.

“The ICC is a court of last resort.  It will not act if a case is investigated or prosecuted by a national judicial system unless the national proceedings are not genuine, for example if formal proceedings were undertaken solely to shield a person from criminal responsibility,” the court says.

But it is far from clear that those who may have committed war crimes outside Africa are being pursued or could be pursued by local justice systems.

Another reason for putting so much weight on Africa might be that it is relatively easy and uncontroversial. Its states and rebel factions are not particularly influential. The conflicts in Africa are not at the heart of any global struggles that could result in major diplomatic ructions.

The risk for the court, though, might be a loss of credibility within the continent and beyond. The attempt by the court’s prosecutor to bring charges against President Bashir has certainly made some African states ponder whether it was sensible to sign up to and ratfiy the 2002 Rome statute that established the court.

African support has been significant. Of those that have become “States Parties”, 30 are from Africa. Compare that to the one (Jordan) in the Middle East. The United States has not signed up. Nor has China or Russia.

Is the court targeting Africa disproportionately or do its actions simply reflect a disproportionate number of war crimes committed there? What will it mean for the court’s credibility if it does not tackle atrocities elsewhere? Should we just be pleased that a start is being made to prosecuting those accused of war crimes, wherever they were committed?


Africa has evidenced much more than its share of barbaric behavior, with a historical catalog of mass rape, mutilation, cannibalism, etc. that is difficult to ignore. Most unfortunate, but such is reality.

Posted by Mike in NYC | Report as abusive

The racist & hypocrites at the ICC have NO credibility, they are another example of the many useless international bodies set-up & paid for by the so-called world powers, to protect their criminal interest.

Only arresting the non-whites, poor & defenseless, and ignoring the white, rich & powerful criminals (Bush, Olmert, etc.), speaks loud & clear about their idea of justice.

Posted by James | Report as abusive

It is very unfortunate that this article does not mention others reasons the ICC is at the moment targeting these 4 African countries. As quoted from a Human Rights Watch report:

“However, a number of objective factors undermine accusations that the ICC is “biased,” including:

• Three of the four ICC country situations under investigation were referred by the countries involved, while the fourth situation, Darfur, was referred to the court by the UN Security Council.

• The ICC can only investigate crimes committed after July 1, 2002, which means that many situations are excluded from the court’s jurisdiction.

• Crimes committed after July 1, 2002, must still be sufficiently grave (in terms of the number of victims, for example) and the national authorities must be shown to be either unable or unwilling to address them to warrant ICC intervention.”

The report also states: “While the prosecutor’s office is on its own initiative looking into possible investigations in Colombia, Afghanistan, and Georgia, no new investigations have been opened yet.”
(Source: HRW, I.The International Criminal Court Trial of Thomas Lubanga, Questions and answers).

I absolutely disagree with the statement that putting weight on African countries is “relatively easy and uncontroversial” for a number of reasons: collecting evidence in the active war zones of DRC, for example, is nothing but easy; Lubanga’s trial can rise tensions in an already volatile region; etc.

We musn’t forget that, at the heart of this matter, is the fact that this court is fighting impunity for citizens who can’t get justice through the institutions where they live. Impunity, as we know it in the DRC, is one of the main motors of this war.

Posted by Lina Gjerstad | Report as abusive

How could the credibility of the court be affected among those states that have ratified the ICC statute?

It wasn’t ratified in a reciprocity basis. Do populations from African countries really feel target by ICC??

Posted by Mya | Report as abusive

The question remains: Why are not other atrocities prosecuted? The ICC will be granted credibility on the day that the “big guns” like USA, China, Russia etc. will be held responsible for crimes committed. Until then it will remain a purely one sided, administrative action like the UN.

Posted by TF | Report as abusive

A court of law means impartiality, independence and justice. It is true that all those involved in war in Africa have committed serious damage to human lives, but in all these cases they were not acting alone. Will Thomas Lubangu trial be able to hear evidences from Mr. Joseph Kabila or any other head of state if need be? The answer is no. This court has created jobs for already well established rich laywers in the world, instead of encouraging and pressurising authorities in human rights abusing countries to clean their acts. Whether or not Lubangu reamins in prison for the rest of his life, the victims’ lives will not be recovered and those who are still alive will not be compensated by the Congolese government or the United Nations. So what the point of paying these political correct lawyers vast sums of monies without positive effect on the victims. The Westerners are good in creating jobs


It hardly seems like common Africans are crying out, “too much justice! Lay off our war criminals.”

Instead the opposite is true. We are thirsty for justice. If someone was giving out gifts do you think the recipients would start complaining, “why aren’t you giving out gifts to others? You are unfair.”

We wish we had justice in our local courts, but we don’t trust them. If anything we complain that the international community and courts don’t do enough–not that they are doing too much.

Posted by D in DRC | Report as abusive

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