Gambia has notified the United Nations of its withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC), which will take effect on Nov. 10, 2017, UN spokesman Farhan Haq said on Monday, making it the third country to quit The Hague-based tribunal.
In October, Gambia’s Information Minister Sheriff Bojang described the ICC as “an International Caucasian Court for the persecution and humiliation of people of colour, especially Africans.”
The tiny West African nation said in late October it planned to pull out of the ICC. South Africa and Burundi both notified the United Nations in October of their withdrawal from the court, which will take effect in one year.
The ICC’s current chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, is Gambian and was an adviser to Gambian President Yahya Jammeh in the early years of his rule after he seized power in a coup in 1994. She later served as justice minister.
The court, which opened in July 2002 and has 124 member states, is the first legal body with permanent international jurisdiction to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has expressed regret that South Africa, Burundi and Gambia are leaving the ICC and said it could “send a wrong message on these countries’ commitment to justice.”
African retreat about impunity, not dignity
Fletcher Simwaka is the advocacy coordinator with the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation in Malawi.
In the weeks gone by, Africa been home to disturbing news for the causes of human rights and international justice. Last month, South Africa, Burundi and Gambia announced their decision to withdraw from the International Criminal Court. There is great fear among citizens and civil society organizations on the continent that these moves might spark a mass exodus of African states from the ICC.
In his defense of the country’s intent to withdraw from the court, the Gambian Information Minister Sheriff Bojang called the ICC the “International Caucasian Court for the persecution and humiliation of people of color.” Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh has often been accused of human rights abuses and clamping down on political opponents.
Lawmakers in Burundi, which has been embroiled in a political crisis since President Pierre Nkurunziza decided last year to run for a third term in office, voted overwhelmingly last month to leave the ICC, accusing the Hague-based court of being a “tool used to try and change power.” The country’s decision to exit the ICC came weeks after the UN Human Rights Council voted to create a Commission of Inquiry for Burundi following serious human rights violations such as killings, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence.
During the recent independence celebrations in Zambia, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni joined the the attack on the court, calling the ICC “useless.” There is speculation that other countries such as Kenya and Namibia are monitoring the ICC withdrawals with keen interest and might also quit the court.
Demonizing the ICC has simply become a safety valve for leaders who have an aversion to accountability. The exodus from the court by these countries is not for the benefit of African people, but for the benefit of leaders who want to keep ruling their countries with an iron fist. Simply put, African leaders want to guarantee themselves impunity for crimes they commit against their own citizens.
The ICC was created as an international court of last resort to prosecute crimes like torture and genocide when national courts are unable or unwilling to do so. Voiceless and powerless citizens — like the ones who suffered atrocities in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and the Central African Republic — have the ICC as a last resort to justice. International courts can play a unique role in offering justice. For example, after years of suffering atrocities at the hands of Charles Taylor, the victims in Liberia finally found justice from an international court: Taylor was found guilty in 2012 of 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious violations of international humanitarian law, including murder, forced labor and slavery, recruitment of child soldiers and rape.
Earlier this year, international justice played a role in holding Chadian dictator Hissene Habre to account. During his eight-year rule, an estimated 40,000 people were killed and another 200,00 tortured. On May 30, the Extraordinary African Chambers in Senegal handed down a life sentence to the former Chad ruler, another example of the importance of international criminal justice to survivors who suffered years of rape, sex slavery, war crimes and crimes against humanity under his rule. His victims and a small group of lawyers campaigned for 17 years to see the former dictator answer for his crimes.
Granted, the ICC is not perfect. The UN Security Council, which seems to operate at whims of the powerful nations such as the United States, Britain, China and Russia, plays a large role in referring cases to the court. (The United States is not a part of the ICC, for example.) Critics of the court in Africa have also faulted the court’s indifference toward atrocities committed in Iraq by the United States and Britain under the leadership of President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair. All this has tempted some African heads of state to think the ICC was created to get at African leaders whose leadership does not stay well with the West. While it is true that nine out of 10 pending cases before the court are African, all but one of the African cases under the ICC were brought by the African states themselves or the U.N. Security Council.
A number of African countries recently have seen brutal crackdowns of critics of the government, whether through arbitrary arrests or cold-blooded extermination. In Zimbabwe, for instance, government critics continue to live in fear, with so many suffering various forms of human rights abuses. Currently in the Congo, citizens opposed to Joseph Kabila’s attempt to extend his rule are being dealt with with a heavy hand.
As such, more withdrawals by African nations would be a huge betrayal to African citizens’ access to justice. The African Union must abandon its ICC withdrawal agenda and instead focus on strengthening the continent’s relationship with the court. Most importantly, African leaders in their individual capacities should expressly reaffirm their support for the ICC, as Botswana, Malawi, Zambia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and Senegal did recently. Doing so would not be a sign of weakness or a threat to their power, but would be in the best interests of their own citizens to whom they are primarily accountable.
ICC in 2017
The International Criminal Court will make the situation in Libya a priority in 2017, its prosecutor said today, citing the widespread violence, lawlessness and impunity in the country and the tragic consequences of the conflict borne by civilians.
“My commitment to make Libya a priority situation in 2017 is compelled by a number of factors,” Fatou Bensouda, ICC Prosecutor, told a Security Council debate, noting that those factors include the widespread violence, lawlessness and impunity in the country, a desire to provide justice for victims of Rome Statute crimes, and alleviate the suffering of those civilians, and the opportunities for further investigation.
The situation in Libya was referred to her Office by the 15-member Council. “The referral by definition carries great responsibility to seek justice for the countless civilians who have been victims of the widespread crimes in Libya since 15 February 2011,” she said.
Regarding the case of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, a former Libyan political figure and a son of late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, she said that media reports suggested that Mr. Gaddafi had been released from detention in Zintan on the basis of a grant of amnesty.
“I must report to you that reliable sources, including the Libyan Prosecutor-General’s office, have confirmed this information to be incorrect,” she said, adding that Mr. Gaddafi is still in Zintan and outside the custody and control of the Presidency Council of the Government of National Accord.
She called on the Libyan authorities to ensure that they do everything possible to have Mr. Gaddafi transferred to the ICC without any further delay.
As for the case of Abdullah Al-Senussi, former Libyan intelligence chief, her Office awaits the full report of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) on the conduct of the domestic trial, and will study it carefully when it is available, she said. At this stage, her Office remains of the view that no new facts have arisen which negate the basis on which the Pre-Trial Chamber found Mr A1-Senussi’s case inadmissible before the Court, she added.
She said that the persistent instability and armed conflict prevents her Office from conducting investigations within Libyan territory, in relation to both existing and potential new cases.
However, her Office intends to apply for new warrants of arrest under seal as soon as practicable and hopes to have new arrest warrants served in the near future, she said, noting that her Office’s ongoing efforts to arrest additional suspects have advanced significantly.
“Timely execution of these new arrest warrants will be crucial, will require coordinated efforts by States, and may also require support from the Council,” she said, adding that she has decided to allocate additional resources from within her Office’s overall budget to the Libya situation.
“Without this Council’s support, this allocation will necessarily come at the expense of investigations of other crimes in other situations,” she said.
“I appeal to this Council to recognise the collective responsibility arising out of your referral and to support financial assistance by the United Nations for my Office’s Libya investigations in 2017. The Libyan people deserve no less,” she stressed.