Leaving the International Criminal Court would be a tragedy for Africa, says Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.
Cape Town - African leaders behind the move to extract the continent from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC) are effectively seeking a licence to kill, maim and oppress their people without consequences.
They are saying that African leaders should not allow the interests of the people to get in the way of their personal ambitions. Being held to account interferes with their ability to act with impunity. Those who get in their way – their victims – should remain faceless and voiceless.
They are arguing that the golden rule of reciprocity – do unto others as you would have them do to you – should not apply to them. And nor should any legal system.
But they know that they cannot say these things in public, so they say that the ICC is racist.
At first glance, when one tallies the number of African leaders versus European and North American leaders prosecuted by the court, their argument appears as if it might be plausible. When one considers the facts, however, one quickly realises that the number of Africans put on trial is an indictment of leadership and democracy in some African countries, not of the court.
Africa has suffered the consequences of unaccountable leaders for too long to allow itself to be hoodwinked in this manner.
When thousands of people are murdered and displaced in any country, one would hope in the first instance that that country’s own systems of justice and fairness would kick in to right the wrongs.
But when that country is unwilling or unable to restore justice, who should represent the interests of the victims? Those behind the call to extract Africa from the ICC say: Nobody.
The ICC was established to help end impunity for the perpetrators of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community. The Rome Statute that established the court provided victims with the opportunity to have their voices heard and to obtain, where appropriate, reparation for their suffering.
The roll call of African leaders being summoned by the ICC to face justice is growing. President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan has been charged with crimes against humanity in Darfur, and now President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President (William) Ruto of Kenya face similar charges for brutal violence against their own people following their election to office.
Those accused of crimes proclaim their innocence and vilify the institution as racist and unjust, as Hermann Göring and his comrades vilified the Nuremberg Court that put Nazi leaders on trial following World War II.
Worse still, today and tomorrow at the AU Summit, Kenya will attempt to lead the continent in pulling Africa out of the ICC. This would be a grave blow to the rule of law and the memories of the millions of people who have suffered in the refugee camps of Darfur, and the villages of Congo and Ivory Coast.
Right now, thousands of people from across the planet are joining a campaign hosted by Avaaz, an international advocacy organisation, calling on Africa’s leaders to stay in the ICC and stand behind international justice and what it means for so many vulnerable citizens everywhere. They represent our global commitment to working together to make the future brighter and safer for the next generations.
The eight matters brought before the ICC were without exception initiated by African countries and their leaders. There was no witch-hunt or imposition, the judges and investigators were invited in.
So while the rhetoric of leaders at the AU may play both the race and colonial cards, the facts are clear. Far from being a so-called “white man’s witch hunt”, the ICC could not be more African if it tried. Twenty African countries helped to found the ICC. Of 108 nations that initially joined it, 30 are in Africa. Five of the court’s 18 judges are African, as is the vice-president of the court. The chief prosecutor of the court, who has huge power over which cases are brought forward, is from Africa. The ICC is, quite literally, Africa’s court.
Leaving the ICC would be a tragedy for Africa for three clear reasons.
First, without justice, countries can attack their neighbours or minorities in their own countries with impunity. Two years ago, when the warlord Thomas Lubunga was arrested to face charges of enlisting and conscripting child soldiers, the threat of the ICC undermined his support from other militia.
In Ivory Coast, since Laurent Gbagbo was taken to face justice in The Hague, the country has been able to rebuild. Human Rights Watch reported that national radio and television stations switched messages of hatred to appeals for restraint when the ICC threatened to intervene.
Without this court, there would be no brake on the worst excesses of world leaders. And these violent leaders continue to plague Africa: the Great Lakes, Mali, northern Nigeria and Egypt all give reason for concern. Perpetrators of violence must not be allowed to wriggle free.
Second, without justice there can be no peace. In South Africa, the scars of apartheid are still deep and painful and it has taken a long process of truth and reconciliation for these wounds to begin to heal.
In Kenya, the rioting and killing across the Rift Valley will take a long time to resolve, with communities pitted against each other. Put simply, where justice and order is not restored there can be no healing, leaving violence ticking like a bomb.
Third, as Africa finds its voice in world affairs, it should be strengthening justice and the rule of law, not undermining it.
The alternatives are too painful: revenge, like what happened in Rwanda, Kosovo, Bosnia; or blanket amnesty, a national commitment to amnesia like what happened in Chile. The only way any country can deal with its past is to confront it.
We need loud voices in Addis Ababa to deliver the message of the world’s people, to shout down those that want us to do nothing. At the front we need the heavyweight champions of Africa – South Africa and Nigeria – to exercise their leadership and stop those who don’t like the rules from attempting to rewrite them. If Africa’s democracies truly believe in justice and the rule of law, they must stand up against this attempt by their least democratic brothers and sisters to undermine those values.
Today’s meeting is a contest between justice and brutal violence. Far from a fight between Africa and the West, this is a fight within Africa, for the soul of the continent. May righteous Africans raise their voices and affirm the ICC and the rule of law.
* The Avaaz petition started by Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu can be signed at https://secure.avaaz.org /en/justice_for_africa_icc/
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.