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African Governments have made greatest use of the ICC

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Many observers and critics of the International Criminal Court (ICC) argue that the Court has focused entirely on Africa and needs to expand its investigations to other continents. Some critics even cast the ICC as a colonialist tool that is biased against Africans. But while it is true that each of the individuals charged by the Court have been Africans, these arguments overlook and overshadow the fact that African governments have been largely supportive of the ICC and were instrumental in its founding.

Is the ICC picking on Africa?

As many have noted, of the eight active formal investigations that the ICC has opened in it's over ten years of existence, all of them have been on the African continent. It is easy, then, with just that information, to conclude that the Court and its prosecutors have focused on Africa. But contrary to common perceptions, the ICC's interventions in Africa have in fact been called for and supported by African states. In four instances—in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, the Central African Republic and Mali—the situations were referred to the ICC prosecutor by those very states.

In those situations where investigations were opened on the volition of the prosecutor, there was also support from African governments. In Kenya, the prosecutor was given evidence of crimes allegedly committed during 2007-08 post-election violence by an international commission established by the Kenyan government. Even then, an investigation was only formally opened after the Kenyan government failed to meet an agreed upon deadline for starting its own prosecutions.

Likewise, the investigation in Cote d'Ivoire was supported by the Ivorian government, under the leadership of President Laurent Gbagbo which voluntarily accepted ICC jurisdiction in 2003 The remaining investigations—in Darfur and Libya—were referred to the ICC prosecutor by the United Nations (UN) Security Council, with both referrals receiving support from African states sitting on the Council at the time.
Rather than seeking out cases on the African continent, the ICC has opened investigations where it has been asked to, and where grave crimes are being committed. As ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has said: "The office of the prosecutor will go where the victims need us... [t]he world increasingly understands the role of the court and Africa understood it from the start. As Africans we know that impunity is not an academic, abstract notion."

African support for the ICC

"My largest constituency is Africa and its state parties. I make every effort to liaise with them and be truly attentive to their concerns, "remarked Ambassador Tiina Intelmann, President of the Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Statute (the ICC's founding treaty) recently. Her office has carried out exhaustive efforts to respond to any question from African states, whether they are ICC states parties or not.

African countries have long supported the idea of an international criminal court. Members of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and later the African Union (AU) were actively involved in the ICC's creation. During the 1998 Rome Conference negotiations, OAU Legal Adviser Tiyanjana Maluwa gave two justifications for Africa's interest in the ICC: the continent's historical endurance of atrocities such as slavery and colonial wars, and the memory of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, where the international community failed to take preventative action.These experiences "strengthened Africa's resolve to support the idea of an independent, effective, international penal court that would punish and hopefully deter perpetrators of such heinous crimes," according to Maluwa

This resolve has carried through to the present. African states have routinely responded positively to requests for assistance by the ICC during the course of proceedings. They have facilitated investigations and provided crucial support to their conduct.

For example, just last month Rwanda, which is not a state party to the Rome Statute cooperated in facilitating the transfer of ICC suspect Bosco Ntaganda to the Court. Furthermore, in July 2012, six West African heads of state attending a meeting of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Burkina Faso called for the ICC to intervene and conduct investigations of alleged crimes in northern Mali.

The fact is that ordinary African citizens do not share the same views as some of their leaders on the ICC. While attending an expert roundtable meeting on the African Union, the ICC and the UN Security Council in Addis Ababa in March 2013, I was asked why heads of state and senior government officials feel they are entitled to immunity from prosecution?

The AU and the ICC: a shaky relationship?

The AU's relationship with the ICC is admittedly far from perfect. The AU has supported calls for UN Security Council deferrals of the investigations in Darfur and Kenya, and most notably instructed member states not to act on the arrest warrant for Sudanese President and ICC suspect Omar Al-Bashir, arguing that he has immunity as a sitting head of state.

But that is not the whole story. Institutional relations are complex and take time to develop. The relationship between the ICC and the UN was foreseen in the Rome Statute, but the negotiations of a draft relationship agreement as a basis for discussions between both organizations lasted for two years. No such provisions were foreseen for the relationship between the AU and the ICC, so some tension between the two may be expected.

The ICC Office of the Prosecutor has said that overall the relationship between the ICC and the AU has been very good. Between 80 and 90 percent of the ICC's requests for cooperation are directed to African states, including to non-states parties, and to date none have been refused. One could argue that the Court's current cases could not have proceeded without the support and cooperation of the AU's member states.

Crucially, members of the AU have also begun to assert the need to abide by their obligations as members of the ICC over their membership in the AU. Countries such as Botswana, South Africa, Burkina Faso and Niger have publicly affirmed the need to arrest ICC suspects on their territory. During preparations for the July 2012 AU summit in Malawi, President Joyce Banda announced that the arrest warrant against President al-Bashir would be acted upon if he were to attend, which led to the relocation of the meeting to Addis Ababa.

Where states have been reticent to cooperate with the Court, African civil society have reminded them of their Rome Statute responsibilities. In Kenya, for example, civil society groups worked through the Kenyan judicial system to assert the government's obligation to arrest Al-Bashir.

African support for justice

With 34 states parties and 43 signatories to the Rome Statute, Africa is one of the ICC's largest bases of support. With Egypt's recent expressions of interest in joining the Court, that support looks like it will continue to grow in the future. Likewise, the African continent is well-represented on the ICC's staff. Several Africans hold key positions in the Court, including chief prosecutor, 5 of the courts judges are African including the first vice president and deputy registrar. Out of a total of 658 permanent ICC staff, 144 are African nationals, representing 34 African nations.

Critics of the Court all too often discount this participation. When they do, they lose sight of the fact that Africans are not the victims of a biased ICC, but willful supporters of the Court's mission to end impunity for the crimes from which they have too frequently suffered.

Finally, the Rome Statute states the ICC should select the gravest situations under its jurisdiction. It is not about regional or geographic representation, and its not a subject of high politics, it's the law: where there are crimes falling within its jurisdiction that are not being addressed by national jurisdictions, under the new system of international justice, the Office of the Prosecutor should step in if the Court is to do what it was set up to do. Those who argue that the court is targeting Africans should stop and think for a moment: there are more than 5 million African victims displaced, more than 40.000 African victims killed, hundreds of thousands of African children transformed into killers and rapists, thousands of African victims raped. Should the ICC ignore these victims? It's not about focusing on Africa; it is about working for the victims, and the victims are African. That is why the Court is a solution; its impartiality, its independence ensures the legitimacy of its intervention.

By Stephen Lamony

Stephen Lamony is a Senior Adviser at the Coalition for the International Criminal Court. The views expressed here are mine and do not reflect the official position of the CICC.