Addis Ababa – African heads of state have adopted a strategy for mass withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the just ended African Union (AU) summit – but with many reservations.
An official communique is yet to be issued, but two delegates who attended the last day of the summit on Tuesday confirmed that the decision was taken by consensus.
South Africa was one of the countries pushing for the withdrawal.
“It was done by consensus,” an AU official said, “but you know when there is consensus nobody says what it is that they didn’t want to do.”
Another delegate from South Africa confirmed it went through “with many reservations”.
It is understood that there were some questions about the legality of such a move, seeing that countries joined individually and have to enact legislation on withdrawal domestically.
Thirty-four out of the 55 AU member states are also parties to the ICC.
“It’s a political statement and it will reverberate internationally,” a South African with knowledge of the proposals said. “The ICC won’t ignore the political message.”
He also said states that previously contemplated withdrawal, would not be emboldened to do so, while those who failed to do so would be shamed.
South Africa and Burundi have already started taking steps to withdraw from the court, and The Gambia has also signalled its intention, but the new administration has indicated that they would not go ahead with such.
But Elise Keppler from Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the reservations by some states showed “a lack of backing for the decision”.
It was not clear which states opposed the decision, but Nigeria, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania, Ghana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Sierra Leone, and Botswana have expressed support for the war crimes court.
Concrete recommendations for action
The foreign ministers of many of these states, as well as Nigeria, have reportedly told a meeting of the executive council of the AU, where the strategy was discussed, that they opposed a mass withdrawal. According to reports, Nigeria’s foreign minister said: “Nigeria and others believed that the court had an important role to play in holding leaders accountable.”
Keppler said in the draft strategy she had seen, there were few “concrete recommendations for action” and it noted that mass withdrawal wasn’t recognised under international law.
There were also no timelines for withdrawal.
She said it was necessary for states to continue showing support for the war-crimes court “to deliver justice for the gravest crimes”.