COMMENT: By Martin M. Lwanga
Politics in Africa tends to be a zero sum game where the losers need an ICC to protect their rights
The recent decision by the President of Burundi, Peirre Nkurunziza, to sign legislation enabling Burundi to withdrawal from International Court Criminal Court (ICC), followed by South Africa’s request to leave as well, has both wide political and economic implications. One can only hope that, in spite of many other African leaders having misgivings against ICC, they will not follow heed. Contrary to some views African leaders and their nations stand to benefit most from membership as opposed to a perceived threat of the ICC against the interest of Africans.
From a political point of view, poorer nations like Burundi are now threatened with further isolation from the community of the world of nations. The ICC has 124 member states; including all the countries of South America, most of Europe, Oceania and the Arab World. Burundi and South Africa, therefore, now seek to join a rather odd club of isolationist, some already in a strong enough position to do without membership. For example, nations like the U.S., China and Israel have the political and economic muscle to skirt membership in such international bodies; a liberty which young and poorer nations may hardly afford.
There are indeed multiple advantages which membership to international bodies like ICC brings. First are the political dividends which arise from being part of international networks. Through interaction in international settings member states support each other’s agenda through tradeoffs and accompanying gains. International forums provide platforms for advancing sovereign nation’s agenda rather than rob them of independence. Secondly, membership brings economic benefit from employment of nationals to economic opportunities related to running the business of international bodies in member states. In 2010 Uganda was host to a Review Conference of the ICC. Thirdly, along with that is the loss of investment opportunities which isolation creates.
It is true the ICC has not been perfect and there are important issues to address. A particularly vexing matter for Africa has been that all the 39 individuals who have been indicted have been African. The abuse of human rights is universal and one cannot argue that Africans have a monopoly of it. There are also complex situations where peacemaking efforts can be undermined by pursuing a court process as opposed to local dialogue. Trying individuals in far off destinations like Europe for crimes committed back in Africa evokes images of colonial domination. The worst dictators and conflicts in Africa have always had their share of supporters and beneficiaries in Western capitals which leaves many wondering why only Africans. For ICC to gain legitimacy, it needs to address this image of her as a Western imperial organisation bent on putting errant Africans in line.
But there are also undoubted benefits arising from membership. In the first 50 years of Africa’s independence the region had more than her share of blood curdling dictators and conflicts that at worst culminated in genocide. For example, the conflicts in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Uganda and more, that killed millions and left much more displaced, needs a mechanism that perpetrators of war crimes must face some form of retribution.
The goal of ICC is to prosecute individuals for crimes of genocide, particularly those targeting a group pf people; crimes against humanity and war crimes. What happens where there are cases of ethnic cleansing?! The ICC is intended to complete national judicial systems, especially in cases where national courts are unwilling or incapable of prosecuting criminals. The impunity of many African leaders and guerrilla war lords is well known and calls for another mechanism other than national courts which can easily be thwarted.
When it comes to the accusation that the lion share amongst those indicted are Africans, it is important to observe that in the 21st century, conflicts have occurred more frequently in poorer nations. The economist Paul Collier observed in his book, `Bottom Billion’, that “a typical low income country faces a risk of civil war of about 14 percent in a five year period.” The majority of African nations are in the low income category and hence the greater proportion of violent conflicts.
As well as a result of weak institutions, politics in Africa tends to be a zero sum game where the losers often face complete extermination. In a zero sum game where heads of state can lose their power along with their cronies through violent means, institutions such as ICC are the best defense they can have to ensure their rights are protected. Take the case of President Laurent Gbagbo who lost out in the Ivory succession conflict; under the ICC he has the opportunity to a fair trial as opposed to being lynched in kangaroo courts imposed by the victor.
The moves by Burundi and South Africa are, therefore, premature and unfortunate. Perhaps as there is a one year waiting period, the issues of concern can be addressed, rather than going back to the old days where poor and defenseless victims are left to the whims of states run by blood thirsty tyrants.
Dr Martin M Lwanga is the Dean of the Faculty of Business & Administration at Uganda Christian University, Mukono. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org