Rights groups condemn plans for immunity of African leaders

15 May
The International Criminal Court in The Hague ...
AU’s shocking move follows strident attacks on the International Criminal Court, ICC, by some African leaders who accused it of a witch-hunt. Now, they want to give themselves immunity over the same crimes The Hague-based ICC/CPI indicted some of them for. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Modou S. Joof

African leaders through their justice ministers and attorney generals are creeping their feet towards considering a draft protocol that would give leaders immunity on grave crimes against humanity.

These justice ministers and attorney generals of the AU are scheduled to meet in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia May 15-16 to consider a draft protocol to expand the authority of the African Court on Justice and Human Rights to include criminal jurisdiction over genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

Also, a proposal providing immunity for heads of state and senior government officials from prosecution for such crimes is being considered as part of the amended protocol.

But African human rights organisations from 19 countries and a host of international human rights organisations working in Africa have said the plan to give immunity to sitting government leaders before the Court would be a major setback for justice for grave crimes.

They said the plan would also harm the regional court in a letter to African governments on Monday. 

AU’s shocking move follows strident attacks on the International Criminal Court, ICC, by some African leaders who accused it of a witch-hunt. It also came amid ICC proceedings against Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, Kenya’s president and vice president.

Some African leaders have also considered withdrawing their countries membership of the ICC, a court that does not recognise immunity for sitting presidents wanted for crimes against their own people.

Sulemana Braimah, executive director of the Media Foundation for West Africa, said exempting sitting heads of state and senior government officials from African Court jurisdiction on grave crimes would shield the powerful from the reach of the law.

“This is fundamentally at odds with the AU Constitutive Act, which rejects impunity,” Braimah said.

Thuso Ramabolu, a human rights officer at Lesotho’s Transformation Resource Centre, said:“Impunity remains one of the biggest threats to human rights protection in Africa.

“It’s crucial for people responsible for mass atrocities to face justice, irrespective of their official positions. Immunity poses grave alarm and would create an incentive to hold on to power indefinitely.” 

Immunity with respect to serious crimes is also barred before some domestic courts in Africa, but some countries have disempowered their local courts to ensure they cannot try sitting presidents. The ICC remains the last resorts for victims of crimes against humanity to get justice.

The programme manager at the Kenyan Section of the International Commission of Jurists said even domestic law in Kenya and South Africa bars immunity for sitting officials before domestic courts on grave crimes.

“African governments should not roll back important progress in ensuring perpetrators can be held to account,” Stella Ndirangu said.

International law and impunity

 International conventions signed by African countries, including the Convention against Torture, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and the Geneva Conventions of 1949 recognize the imperative of accountability for grave crimes irrespective of the title or position of those responsible.

Also, the irrelevance of official capacity before international criminal courts has become entrenched in international law since the post-World War II trials before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg

Right groups have endorsed the letter urging African leaders not to entrench impunity in Africa.

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