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International justice: Is Africa on trial?

Wednesday April 4 2012


Is the International Criminal Court a valid court of last resort or another example of the West flexing its muscles in Africa? 

Recently, the court delivered its first verdict after nearly a decade of work. The conviction of Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga, who was found guilty of using child-soldiers, has been hailed by rights groups as “a major milestone in the fight against impunity”.

UN rights chief Navi Pillay said: “Two decades ago, international justice was an empty threat. Since then, a great deal has been achieved, and the coming of age of the ICC is of immense importance in the struggle to bring justice and deter further crimes.”

Ursula Cherono is a 41-year-old Kenyan woman who is banking on the ICC for justice. On January 27, 2008, she was at home in Rift Valley Province when she learnt that a group of young men from another tribe were planning a retaliatory attack on her community.

With her neighbours, Cherono decided to flee the area. Unfortunately, they bumped into their attackers and she was struck with a club on the back.

“Some 10 attackers remained behind and they raped me repeatedly, until I was unconscious,” she sobs. “I suffered an injured spinal cord, my leg was broken and also my uterus was later removed as a result of the rape.”


While victims of violent crime such as Cherono and human rights advocates appreciate the role of the ICC in international justice, some African leaders have been unimpressed by the court’s activities. They accuse it of placing undue emphasis on Africa. 

The chairman of the African Union Commission, Jean Ping, says that while the AU is against impunity, the ICC has completely ignored legitimate events outside Africa.

“Does that mean that you have nothing on Gaza? Nothing on the Caucasus? Nothing on the militants in Colombia? Nothing on Iraq? We don’t want double standards,” he said.

Deferring the warrant

Indeed the Kenya and Lubanga cases are just two of seven currently on the ICC’s books. All of them are from Africa. These include: the former Vice-President of the Democratic Republic of Congo Jean-Pierre Bemba, the former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of the former Libyan leader.

Perhaps the boldest of them all was the indictment of a sitting President, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan.

The AU has so far refused to enforce the arrest warrant issued against President Bashir. It has, instead, been lobbying for the warrant to be deferred, arguing that arresting him would derail the peace process in the region.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni has complained that while Africa supported and participated in the formation of the court, “the way it is being implemented (makes) it seem like it is only Africans committing crimes”.

Supporters of the court, however, argue that most investigations have been determined by referrals, either by African states themselves — as was the case in Uganda and the DRC — or by the UN Security Council.

The ICC’s incoming chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda is from The Gambia. She says, if anything, the focus on the continent “shows commitment by African leaders to international criminal justice”.

Even though the court is backed by 120 countries, three veto-wielding Security Council members — China, Russia and the US — have not signed up. They will not refer their nationals to the court and are also in a much stronger position to shield their leaders.

The ICC was set up to prosecute the perpetrators of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. As the ICC marks its tenth anniversary this year, BBC Africa Debate will be asking whether the court’s focus on Africa is undermining its credibility.

Is Africa on trial? And can its newly appointed African Chief Prosecutor bridge the divide between the court and the continent?

Ms Akidi is a senior producer, BBC World Service (Africa).