This week Uhuru Kenyatta labelled the International Criminal Court as a racist, imperialist institution.
UP IN FLAMES In this 2007 file photo, a supporter of Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement holds up a machete in front of a burning barricade during post-election violence in Kenya
‘The ICC [International Criminal Court] has been reduced to a painfully farcical pantomime, a travesty that adds insult to the injury of victims. It stopped being the home of justice the day it became the toy of declining imperial powers.” Those were the words of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta when he spoke at a special African Union summit in Addis Ababa a year ago. Speaking as the ICC was finalising its case against him for his role in Kenya’s post-election violence of 2007/08, Kenyatta encouraged African leaders to abandon the ICC because of what seemed to be bias against the continent.
He echoed the views of many who believed the court unfairly targeted Africans to the exclusion of other regions of the world. The critics base this on the fact that most of the 30-odd people who have been indicted by the ICC are African.
To his credit, Kenyatta submitted himself to the authority of the ICC, leaving his deputy, William Ruto, to run the country while he stood trial.
This was much better than Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir who is, in effect, on the run from the ICC and cannot set foot in any country over which the court has jurisdiction.
As Kenyatta appeared in The Hague this week, there was more anti-ICC noise from various African quarters. It is an unfortunate debate as the ICC is striking powerful blows on behalf of Africans who are being terrorised by their leaders.
We need to remove emotion from this debate and appreciate the value of this institution.
Is the ICC really a tool of Western powers who want to use it to recolonise Africa by stealth? Is there validity in the claim that the ICC prioritises African cases over cases from other parts of the world? Has any African leader faced trumped-up charges because the ICC was following instructions from Washington, London or Paris?
Let the facts speak for themselves. Outside the Middle East, Africa has been the site of the bloodiest conflicts of the past 12 years so it is only logical that it should receive the attention of the ICC, which came into operation in 2002.
These conflicts have been characterised by the brutal slayings of hundreds of thousands of people. Often, the instigators of these slayings are the leaders themselves. It is therefore logical that those accused of crimes against humanity will come from the region where most of these are committed.
One of those indicted by the ICC include former Liberian president Charles Taylor. He sponsored the savage civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone with the Revolutionary United Front paying him in the form of blood diamonds. More than 50 000 people died in the 11-year war in which the chopping-off of victims’ limbs was fashionable.
In his own country, Taylor’s war with the rebels who were trying to overthrow his corrupt and brutal regime cost 250 000 lives, most of them at the hands of his soldiers.
Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir presided over a relentless paramilitary campaign that saw up to 400 000 people killed and more than 3 million displaced in the Darfur region of the country from 2003 to 2009. Al-Bashir’s mainly Arab militia, known as the Janjaweed, took pleasure in wreaking havoc in the predominantly black region. A world still reeling from the Rwandan genocide recoiled in shock and disgust at the ability of a government to inflict this kind of terror on its own citizens.
Kenyatta, the man around whom the African elite is now rallying, is accused of abetting and funding the post-election bloodshed in his country in December 2007 and early 2008.
More than 1 200 people were killed in the orgy of violence, which took on a distinct ethnic pattern. Another 600 000 were displaced. Kenya, whose fiveyear democracy was still taking shape after the end of Daniel arap Moi’s 24year dictatorial rule, still bears the scars of those weeks of madness.
There are others who have allegedly committed gross offences in other parts of Africa and have been responsible for the ugly images of the continent that get beamed around the world.
Now the critics of the ICC would have us believe that hauling people like these before a court of law to account for their crimes constitutes an assault on the wellbeing of the continent. They argue that because we have not seen an equal number of white faces in the dock means that the ICC is racist. That is truly warped thinking.
Africans should be celebrating the fact that this international institution, to which 34 of Africa’s country’s are signatories, is protecting the continent’s people from monsters in their midst.
The only area where the argument carries some weight is when questions are asked about the absence of warmongers like former US president George W Bush and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu from the ICC’s target range.
According to the respected Lancet medical journal, the war in Iraq resulted in more than 600 000 violent deaths. Bush, who used white lies to justify going to war, should bear responsibility for this. Netanyahu and his predecessors in Israel’s top job should also be made to account for the wanton killing and brutalisation of Palestinians over the years.
But this will not happen to Bush and Netanyahu because their countries are not signatories to the Rome Statute, in terms of which the ICC was established. This voluntary nature of the ICC is a massive weakness in the system and flies in the face of the universal principle of equality before the law. It undermines the credibility of the system of international justice and provides ammunition to those who want to rally support against the court.
But this should not be an excuse to allow brutes to escape justice.