The Brexit storm has battered the European Union. Since the United Kingdom voted “leave” in June, international observers have wondered whether other members will follow suit. The stability of the organization has been called into question. So far, however, no other European country has shown any sign of following the lead of the United Kingdom. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is not so lucky.
Over the course of the last two weeks, three countries have announced their intentions to leave the ICC, and it is likely that many more “exits” lay ahead. It started with Burundi, which last week decided to withdraw from the organization. It was followed a few days later by South Africa and the next week by the Gambia. Of the 124 countries that signed the Rome Statute—the document that established the ICC—dozens, all of them in Africa, have expressed interest in leaving.
At this point, you may be wondering what exactly it is that the ICC does. The International Criminal Court is the world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal. Its job is to prosecute individuals accused of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide, and its function is similar to that of the Nuremburg Trials following the Second World War, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia following the Yugoslav Wars, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda following the Rwandan genocide. The ICC was established in 2002 as the international community recognized the need for a permanent tribunal.
Since its foundation, however, it has come under increasing criticism from African governments. Last January, the ICC was widely criticized during the summit of the African Union. During the summit, the President of Kenya submitted a proposal that the AU develop a roadmap for a mass withdrawal from the ICC. Later, in May, Uganda’s president called the ICC “a bunch of useless people” during his inauguration, causing a number of Western diplomats to abruptly walk out of the ceremony. Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president who currently has a warrant for his arrest issued by the ICC, attended the inauguration ceremony. According to the ICC, he should have been detained—but he was not.
If dozens of countries are considering withdrawing, the level of animosity must be extreme. But why? Why is the organization so hated by African leaders? According to its detractors, the ICC is a racist organization. To date, it has issued arrest warrants for 39 individuals. All of them have been Africans. This has many African leaders asking why the ICC has not investigated activities of the United States and United Kingdom in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, the court has been accused of anti-Africa bias, racism, and even neo-colonialism. Leaders have gone so far as to accuse it of acting as a Western tool for meddling in domestic African affairs.
Are these accusations fair? Well, a little bit. But not very. It is certainly fair to criticize the court for lack of involvement in continents besides Africa, but to call it neo-colonial or racist is unjustifiable. For one, five of the eight African countries that were brought before the court were self-referred, meaning their governments willingly sought the assistance of the court’s institutions. Furthermore, the court seems to recognize its problematic focus on Africa. Of its ten current preliminary investigations, six involve countries outside of Africa—including one that is investigating the role of the United Kingdom in Iraq. It’s also important to consider that many of the the non-African countries that the ICC would normally investigate are not part of the organization. The United States never ratified the Rome Statute and is therefore one of these countries that cannot be prosecuted. Finally, the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, Fatou Bensouda, is from the Gambia. Thus the court is not composed of Western officials going after African officials as is often portrayed. Rather, it is composed officials from around the world going after justice on every continent.
Besides the fact that the court’s activities offer a blow to the argument of racism, so too does the uncomfortable fact that many of the worlds existing crimes against humanity occur in Africa, and a handful of African leaders are running from their responsibility for these crimes. Burundi offers a prime example. When the president of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, announced that he would run for a third term despite a constitutional ban on doing so, he brought his country to the brink of civil war. Hundreds were killed and hundreds of thousands fled their homes. Now, Nkurunziza’s government has withdrawn from the ICC. Whether crimes were committed by the government, rebel groups, or individuals is beside the point. Thanks to the decision of the Burundian government, the victims of the recent violence will forever remain without justice. While leaders may claim to be leaving the ICC over racism, a subconscious (or maybe conscious in some cases) instinct of self-preservation may also be affecting their judgment.
Africa remains the world’s least developed continent. As a result, a handful of countries are or have recently been marred by some degree of violence. And a few of the perpetrators are most certainly still in power. Thus we can come to a simple conclusion: the ICC is heavily involved in Africa because more ICC member-states are plagued with violence in Africa than ICC member-states on other continents. To many, such an assertion would be seen as racist. But it isn’t. It’s simply true.
Not everyone is buying the narrative of racism. The government of Botswana, one of Africa’s most democratic countries, has repeatedly voiced its support for the ICC. And Fatou Bensouda, unlike the government of her home country, is not going to turn a blind eye to justice. As she put it, “We say that the ICC is targeting Africans, but all of the victims in our cases in Africa are African victims.” While it may not be fair that the ICC has not pursued more cases outside Africa, African leaders are still responsible for committing war crimes, and they should still be punished for doing so. The international community should not let empty accusations of racism from African leaders prevent it from honoring its duty to African victims.