Burundi, the East African republic that was a colony of Germany and Belgium in the 20th century, has just left the International Criminal Court (ICC). It is the first Member State to turn its back on the only permanent body to prosecute genocide and war crimes and crimes against humanity, and does so because it considers it partial and focused on crimes perpetrated by Africans.
The decision is a serious blow to international justice, but does not affect the Court’s jurisdiction over a previous investigation into Burundi. Dated in 2015, it includes the death of 430 people in the protests registered after the announcement that President Pierre Nkurunziza, a former guerrilla of the Hutu ethnic group (majority in the country) was running for a third term. The Prosecutor’s Office will present its conclusions shortly. The United States, Israel, China, Russia and India are not part of the ICC.
Burundi’s departure was officially notified a year ago to the United Nations. Shortly after, due to the same alleged lack of impartiality of the ICC, South Africa and The Gambia did the same. “They both changed their minds and remain members of the Court without receiving new notifications to the contrary,” said Fadi el Abdallah, his spokesman. He also underlines that the chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, is continuing with her work in Burundi. A file that also includes the arrest of 3,400 people and the flight of some 230,000 more in search of refuge in neighboring countries. Murders, torture, sexual violence, and enforced disappearances complete the documentation.
Criticism of the ICC’s apparent African obsession is not new. Last February, the African Union (AU), which brings together the 55 countries of the continent (34 members of the Court), called for the mass withdrawal of the court for “undermining its sovereignty by paying special attention to its inhabitants.” The resolution then adopted was not binding, and Nigeria and Senegal opposed it. The Court has always denied any partisanship, and the prosecutor Bensouda herself, born in The Gambia, where she was Minister of Justice, often remembers that she is as African as they are. The UA’s ruling was very harsh, and its announcement showed general frustration. But he also asked its members to contribute to the reform of the ICC, a victory for humanitarian organizations, which underscore the lack of credibility of the judicial system in many of the African capitals upset with international judges and prosecutors.
That same regulatory fragility led most African countries to turn at first to the Criminal Court (opened in 2002) to end impunity for warlords. Especially after the Rwandan genocide (1994), where up to 70% of the Tutsi population perished at the hands of their neighbors from the Hutu community, who were leading the Government. Then came serious disputes, such as with South Africa, which in 2015 did not detain the Sudanese president, Omar el Bashir, when he was participating in an African Union summit. On the Sudanese president there is an arrest warrant for the Court for genocide, and when he let go, South Africa also suffered the weight of its internal laws. The Supreme Court concluded that international and national legislation had been violated, with the consequent damage to the country’s reputation.
As for The Gambia, its Information Minister Sheriff Bojang said in 2016 that the Court was “white and intended to humiliate people of color, and is not prosecuting former British Prime Minister Tony Blair for the Iraq war.”
Kenya and Namibia have also adopted resolutions to leave, but “nothing has happened so far and we have no news about it,” according to spokesman El Abdallah.