ICC has become Africa�s court
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Jul 24, 2008, 00:23

When the International Criminal Court (ICC) came into being in July 2002 at The Hague, it was greeted by most fair-minded people as the guardian for the world�s conscience. At last, the oppressed and the victimised would have a voice and everyone on the planet, no matter how powerful, would be held to account for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. That was the idea anyway.

The reality has turned out to be very different. Firstly, three of the planet�s most influential nations -- the US, India and China -- refused the court�s jurisdiction citing potential infringement of sovereignty issues or fears that states would manipulate the court according to their own geopolitical agenda. Nevertheless, with a 106-strong nation membership, it was hoped that the ICC would be credible and impartial.

Six years on and what do we find? The court is wholly focused on Africa. Innocent people are being deprived of liberty, starved, bombed and tortured all over the place, yet unless the perpetrators happen to be African, one could be forgiven for believing they are immune to prosecution.

Since its inception, the court has only investigated crimes in northern Uganda, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan�s Darfur region. Yet, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Office of the Prosecutor received 1,732 complaints from individuals or groups in at least 103 different countries.

Yet, only 12 arrest warrants have been issued mysteriously pertaining only to African nationals. Just four of those accused are currently being detained by the court, which doesn�t have its own police force and is, therefore, reliant on member states hunting down and handing over alleged perpetrators.

Under the subheading �Addressing the criticism that the ICC is a court for Africa,� the report highlights that �the court�s exclusive focus on Africa at present has led to criticism among some African states and ICC observers that the continent is the court�s main target with the prosecution strategy being intentionally geographically-based.�

Underlying this criticism is the perception that the ICC is a European court designed to try African perpetrators because they are believed to be politically and economically �weak.� Among these critics, the ICC is perceived as a biased institution.

Now an ICC prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, has decided to indict Sudan�s President Omar Al Bashir on 10 counts of war crimes and genocide in Darfur further feeding this perception. This is the first time the ICC has ever gone after an incumbent leader of a nation.

Sudan has never signed-up to the ICC but it is a member of the Arab League, which held an emergency session of foreign ministers in Cairo last Saturday. They agreed to support the Sudanese leader, characterising the indictment as �unbalanced� and setting a dangerous precedent. However, they did urge Sudan to pursue its own war crimes trials when under its constitution the ICC will be obliged to quit its intervention.

The HRW report states, �The Office of the Prosecutor has appropriately stressed that regional balance is not a criterion for situation selection.� Obviously not! When people or bodies in 103 countries have requested the court to investigate cases, but only those in Africa have been pursed then the criterion is glaring.

Easier options

On the surface, it looks as though the ICC is guilty of attempting to justify its existence by taking the easier options. Over one million Iraqis have died as a result of Washington�s war of choice based on a series of fabrications, and the ICC stays mum -- well not exactly.

On February 10, 2006, the ICC prosecutor issued an update clarifying his position on Iraq. It concluded that there was reasonable basis to believe that crimes within the jurisdiction of the court had been committed. �But these did not meet the required threshold and the number of victims were limited in comparison with current situations under investigation.� Eh?

Four million displaced persons, untold tens of thousands widowed and orphaned, more than a million dead, a nation stripped of its wealth and its sovereignty, yet the ICC dismisses all this as not meeting �the required threshold.�

Perhaps the prosecutor has been swayed by a law passed by Congress in 2002 authorising US President George W. Bush to use military might to free Americans in the court�s custody or maybe he�s deterred by Washington�s policy of bribing and bludgeoning countries to sign bilateral ICC immunity agreements. The ICC has little to say on the millions of Palestinians incarcerated within the planet�s largest open-air prison in Gaza in dire conditions, or those whose lives are permanently disrupted by an apartheid wall and checkpoints on the West Bank. And it is similarly reticent on atrocities committed in Afghanistan, Tibet and Myanmar.

There is no doubt that Darfur represents one of the greatest tragedies of this century. Whether by neglect or design the Sudanese government has a case to answer, but the question is should it be answerable to the International Criminal Court that has become by cowardly default a court that deals solely with Africans?

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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