“We will not subject ourselves to outside justice”

JOHANNESBURG – African Heads of State and Government convened in Johannesburg South Africa, for the 25th African Union summit, to discuss key issues on the continent, but some unofficial agenda popped up too, and took centre stage.

The arrival of Sudanese President, Omar al Bashir, sparked much controversy. Not only did it delay the start of the Assembly of the Union by four hours – but al Bashir’s attendance at the summit also arguably became the most dominant talking point at the gathering, and in other parts of the continent- not forgetting, The Hague.

Ahead of the opening ceremony, observers (including the media) waited with baited breath, for the AU chairperson, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s welcome addresses.

There was an expectation that the AU leadership would comment or divulge what had been discussed during the closed session earlier, but not even a pipsqueak. It was only natural that the leaders who spoke would not indulge the curious congregants.

The AU’s silence on the matter spoke volumes about its stance on the International Criminal Court (ICC). The more than four hour delay, though excruciatingly long, signalled that African heads were taking charge, and putting their house in order – instead of bowing to international pressure. One could conclude that no time was given to the debate, because it didn’t merit enough attention to hijack the agenda of the continent’s biggest annual convention. It was clear that the supranational union was not going to dance to a foreign tune, or give in to expectations of a public relations clean up. So the matter was not up for discussion that entire evening.

The AU’s decision to remain mum saw a build-up on speculations of what South Africa’s resolve would be, on the visit of President al Bashir, worse… what the implications would be if the host nation failed to live up to its international law commitments.

Needless to say, President al Bashir managed to attend the summit and left the country. This despite a High Court order that he be detained in SA until a legal position had been determined on his case. It was only at the summit’s closing press conference that President Mugabe and Dlamini-Zuma touched on the matter.

President Mugabe criticized the ICC, accusing it of being a prejudicial institution, because of the cases it pursued. President Mugabe said the court’s efforts were targeted at the developing world, particularly black people. He protested that leaders like former US President George W. Bush were never tried for the atrocities committed in Iraq, Afghanistan. 

Rhodesia’s former Prime Minister Ian Smith and the architects of Apartheid were also never tried for violations committed against Zimbabweans and South Africans.

The AU Chair revealed that during a conversation with President Jacob Zuma, the SA leader had told him that he would not allow SA police to arrest President al Bashir.

Also at the summit, Sudan’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Ibrahim Ghandour, told journalists that his president had received guarantees from Pretoria that he was welcome at the summit. South Africa’s Ministry of International Relations signed an agreement ahead of the summit granting diplomatic immunity to all delegates participating at the summit.

A senior South African government official has been quoted as saying: “Our African obligations supersede all others. Africa is the centerpiece of our foreign policy.”

Above all, President Mugabe said: “This [AU] is not the headquarters of the ICC, and we do not want it [ICC] in this region of ours!”

And these are sentiments were shared by the general public too. 

On the sidelines of conference, social media was abuzz with attacks on the ICC. The hashtag #Bashir had the nation talking on Twitter for days, even post the summit.

Selaelo_wa_mo_Africa@freddy_afrika tweeted:  “We are lucky to have leaders like Robert Mugabe in the AU. African leaders will be protected from the western devils.”

Later @freddy_afrika tweeted again: “go to hell US, this is Afrika not America. Hands off our African leaders.”

I am an African @siya_dyosiba tweeted: “US can go jump into a nearby fire pool. Their opinion and view is dust in the air.”

 Leader of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters Julius Malema tweeted on the EFF official account @EconFreedomZA: “we do not promote what #al bashir did, but we can’t act on the instructions of imperialist forces.”

In the AU’s defence, Dlamini-Zuma explained: “The AU summit is not a bilateral meeting. It is a multilateral organisation, and the country that hosts, hosts under the rules of the AU. The African Union has its own rules. Before a country hosts, it signs a host country agreement with the AU which spells out what is expected of the host. And so this venue [Sandton Convention Centre], up to now, it’s an AU venue. It may be located on the geographical space of South Africa, but it is an AU (venue).”

Dlamini Zuma said because President al Bashir was a serving president, of an AU member state, he had always attended AU meetings, and would continue to do so  even the January summit wherever it will be held.

She added: “The AU has no relationship with any organisation. This organisation that you talk about, the ICC, has state partners. We are not a state party. The AU is not a state party. We have no standing in the ICC.”

President Mugabe told journalists that there was a view that Africa must distance itself from the ICC, but said it was difficult to call on the AU, as the treaty was signed by individual countries.

“Those who signed the treaty are now regretting. We did not sign it as Zimbabwe. We won’t submit ourselves to outside justice.”

On the sidelines of the conference, the presiding officer of the AU’s civil society organization, The Economic, Cultural and Social Council (ECOSOCC) Joseph Chilengi revealed that there were ongoing talks within the African Union, to establish an African based mechanism to replace the ICC.

“We are making changes.  We now have a protocol, on the African court, with expanded jurisdiction. As soon as it receives the necessary ratification, that protocol will now give birth to African Court on Human and People’s Rights, with jurisdiction over international crime, and therefore we will begin to perfect the international justice system. Kenya was first to endorse this protocol in January this year,” he told journalists at a press conference.

“But why has it taken so long?” one might ask.

One observer condemned Europe for what he called ‘economic blackmail’ towards Africa. He explained that in many trade agreements, donor aid, development partnerships which African states enter into with Europe, there is a clause which mandated that parties must cooperate with EU institutions, including the ICC.

The observer went on to argue that because Sudan never ratified the Rome Statue, the country forfeited €1billion every year, in European Development Assistance, money he believed many states were reluctant to forgo, if they withdrew from the ICC.

Now the questions begs, “At what cost will Africa continue to be dictated to on how to run the affairs of its house, even post its liberation?” and how important is it for African leaders to speedily set up this court, in the interest of protecting vulnerable citizens living in political unstable regions like the Great Lakes, in the Central African Republic, Mali, or Burundi?

June 2015
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