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Is the International Criminal Court unfair to Africa?
African countries often complain about getting a bad press. They say there’s much more to the continent than war and poverty and starvation. Then there’s the huge coverage given to the International Criminal Court and the fact that all four cases the body is now considering come from Africa.
But what’s strange about the complaints is that the world’s poorest continent is the most heavily represented in the ICC, with 30 member countries. In the March 2009 elections for ICC judges, 12 out of the 19 candidates were Africans nominated by African governments. And Fatou Bensouda, the court’s Deputy Prosecutor, is from Gambia.
Of the four files before the court, the cases on Democractic Republic of Congo, Uganda and the Central African Republic were referred to the court by those very governments. The controversial fourth case, the indictment of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for war crimes, was put before the court by the United Nations Security Council.
The ICC has issued an arrest warrant for the leader of the huge oil-exporting country to face charges of war crimes during almost six years of fighting in Sudan’s violent Darfur region — but he has refused to deal with the court.
It was that case, heavily opposed on the continent, that brought the 30 African ICC members together in Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa for an unprecedented meeting last week after calls from some countries that the Africans should withdraw en masse.
That didn’t happen and diplomats told me only Libya, Senegal, Djibouti and the Comoros islands had seriously lobbied the meeting for a total withdrawal. Reporters were kept well outside the conference room and security seemed tighter than usual but, even from a distance we could hear some very angry exchanges coming from inside. And the frustration written all over the faces of delegates as the meeting stretched into the night seemed to indicate there were serious disagreements on the issue.
But, in the end, they told us nothing and simply said they would make recommendations to their heads of state. Most African countries want the indictment against Bashir deferred for one year and the African Union says it will compromise peace efforts in Darfur. The 53-member organisation is also calling for a one-year deferral.
“The pursuit of peace can be deadly impacted upon if players, including a head of state, are denied even the fundamental presumption of innocence,” AU Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamara told delegates before the meeting began.
His boss, AU Commission Chairman Jean Ping, has repeatedly accused the ICC of having an unhealthy fixation on African leaders and says it should look elsewhere, too.
So is the African Union right? Is the ICC unfair to Africa and could the warrant for Bashir compromise peace efforts in Darfur? Or is the fact that every case before the court comes from Africa simply a true reflection of the continent’s problems?