Cape Town — Five days before crucial talks on whether African nations should pull out of the International Criminal Court (ICC), former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan has come out in vigorous defence of the court.
Speaking to an audience in Cape Town, South Africa, Annan rejected accusations that the ICC was targeting Africa. "It is the culture of impunity and individuals who are on trial at the ICC, not Africa," he said.
Challenged on his remarks by questioners, he added: "The leaders are protecting themselves. No one speaks for the victims."
He said if leaders wanted to "fight" the court without caring about the victims of crime or providing alternative tribunals, "it will be a badge of shame for each and every one and for their countries".
Annan was delivering the annual Desmond Tutu International Peace Lecture at the University of the Western Cape on Monday. On Saturday, an extraordinary session of the African Union (AU) Assembly meets in Addis Ababa to discuss Africa's relationship with the ICC. Reuters news agency recently quoted an AU official as saying that Kenyan officials "have been criss-crossing Africa in search of support" for a withdrawal from the court.
Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto are currently facing charges before the ICC of committing crimes against humanity, arising out of the ethnic violence which swept Kenya in the wake of the contested 2007 elections.
In a settlement of the resulting crisis - mediated by a team headed by Annan - Kenyan leaders agreed in 2008 that if those responsible for the violence were not tried in a domestic tribunal, the matter would be referred to the ICC. The Kenyan Parliament has reneged on this deal: it twice rejected proposals to set up a local special tribunal, triggering the ICC investigation and the current trials, then last month voted to pull out of the ICC.
Annan said in Cape Town: "When I meet Africans from all walks of life, they demand justice: from their national courts if possible, from international courts if no credible alternative exists... We must always have the courage to ask ourselves 'who speaks for the victims?' On too many occasions, we have failed the victims of the worst crimes by neglecting to bring the perpetrators to justice."
Annan, who is Ghanaian, said when the international community adopted the Rome Statute setting up the ICC, "I was proud that so many African countries, where judicial systems are weak and divisions run deep, provided such strong support for the court. I am therefore concerned by recent efforts to portray the Court as targeting Africa. I know this is not the case.
"In four of the cases on Africa before the court, African leaders themselves made the referral to the ICC. In two others - Darfur and more recently Libya - it was the United Nations Security Council, and not the Court, which initiated proceedings."
He disputed an argument that insisting on justice "might obstruct the work for peace... In countries as far apart as Rwanda, Bosnia and Timor-L'Este, we have learned that justice is not an impediment to peace but a partner. When we abandon justice to secure peace, we most likely get neither. The parallel pursuit of justice and peace does present challenges, but they can be managed."
Annan cited the combating of impunity and the enhancing of the integrity of elections as two priorities for Africans wanting to "deepen democracy".
Another priority was to "turn our backs on the 'winner takes all' approach to politics which has been so damaging to our continent". He said the approach had led to "abuses of power by the winner and encouraged losers to reject democracy as a peaceful means for change".
He added: "Too often, the individual interests of leaders have been misconstrued as interests of their country. Political leaders, who derive their position and legitimacy from the people, and are elected to serve them, can never be considered above the law.
"Genuine multiparty democracy provides mutual security to political opponents and encourages them to take part in the process rather than seek to subvert it... It is transparent and accountable institutions, not 'strong men' or strong leaders that safeguard democracy and create the conditions for peace and prosperity."
This report was amended after initial publication by the addition of Annan's remarks in answer to questions.