African heads of state will vote on a possible mass withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC) during a two-day summit meeting of the African Union that begins tomorrow in Addis Ababa. A debate on the workings of the ICC is in itself healthy, but the motion to pull out of this tribunal goes to show that most countries in the continent still support impunity.
Three years after the International Criminal Court (ICC) was established, Uganda became the first country to refer a case to the court. The ICC issued arrest warrants against Joseph Kony and four top commanders of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) arrest for the numerous crimes the movement had allegedly committed in Uganda and abroad.
Uganda President Yoweri Museveni approached the ICC because he wanted an international solution for a war that had become a thorn in his side. The warrants played a key role in bringing the LRA to the negotiating table in Juba, South Sudan in 2008 and 2009. Those talks eventually led to the rebels' withdrawal from Uganda and South Sudan.
But today Museveni is one of the main voices opposing the ICC. The about-face followed the court's indictment of the alleged top perpetrators of the Kenyan post-election violence, including President Uhuru Kenyatta. But Museveni never complained when Sudan President Omar Al-Bashir was indicted because he had a conflict with him.
African leaders like Museveni see courts as means to deal with their enemies. Uganda set up its own war crimes tribunal that so far has only dealt with cases against the rebels. When asked about the crimes committed by government troops, the Ugandan authorities respond that the cases were handled by military courts, but there are no records of the proceedings. The chances that the many women in northern Uganda who were raped by soldiers will ever be able to file a case are slim.
As long as courts try the enemies of African leaders, these leaders believe they are perfect and need to be protected. But if the ICC encroaches upon the privileges of our untouchable leaders, it's a whole different story.
Had Uhuru Kenyatta been defeated in the elections, would African leaders be calling for the continent's withdrawal from the ICC? Probably not! If Kenyatta hadn't been president, he would have gone quietly to the ICC.
We have to realize that these very same leaders have largely corrupted most African judicial systems. A murder case in Uganda involving a businessman with ties to the regime will never see the light of day in a court. Police records will disappear, and judges will clear this privileged person. In Uganda judges have been pressured and threatened in cases with political implications. If we are dealing with mass murder perpetrated by people in power, we will probably never see justice and impunity will continue to reign.
If this AU summit results in a mass withdrawal from the ICC, the men at the conference - for most of them are men - won't be on the losing side. It will be the millions of African war victims who long for justice. The ICC may have its flaws, but it does offer war victims a chance to get justice.
Withdrawing from the ICC without any kind of justice system to take care of these ongoing crimes (that we know cannot be handled by any of our governments) would be an abuse to those who have suffered from the endless wars waged on this continent.
The Congolese men and women I met this week in camps in western Uganda wouldn't agree with these leaders. This unity in impunity in the African Union should not go unchallenged. Many Africans who want to live in peace will hold our leaders responsible. A Congolese mother whose husband was killed while her children watched also deserves justice. Our leaders need to accept that.
Read more about the Kenyatta, Ruto and Sang cases at The Hague Trials Kenya.