Is Africa on International Trial?

Charles Taylor

“There is an Akan saying: ‘Megyefo de abaa tare me so,’ which means, ‘My redeemer has turned my persecutor,’” quips Zaya Yeebo when describing the International Criminal Court’s impact on the African continent.

Founded on July 1, 2002, the International Criminal Court or ICC is a permanent tribunal based in The Hague, Netherlands that prosecutes crimes against humanity including genocide and acts of aggression. 

Since its creation the ICC has publicly indicted 28 and issued 19 arrest warrants to (predominately African) suspected war criminals.  Amongst its most infamous indictments is former Liberian President Charles Taylor whose recent conviction on aiding and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone and sentencing to 50 years in a British high security prison has largely been hailed as a victory for the international justice system.

As the first head-of-state to be convicted of war crimes since World War II, global human rights activists hope that Taylor’s sentence will serve as a harsh warning for warmongers and deter further violence.

“That is a very important precedent and I hope that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Sudan’s Omar Hassan al-Bashir take note,” remarked Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner of Human Rights Watch.

Yet even with Taylor being found guilty and the subsequent outpouring of support from survivors of war and the international community, the Hague tribunal cannot seem to shake the stigma of “putting Africa on trial.”

Although investigations in Afghanistan, Colombia, Georgia, Honduras and South Korea are underway, each active case of the 15 before the Court will try an African defendant.

Even though Africa is the most represented region in the ICC with 33 nations as member states it is the notable absence of membership but great influence of Western nations like United States have over the tribunal that gives many critics pause.

Having not ratified the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court, the tribunal holds no jurisdiction over the United States and therefore its citizens are ineligible to stand trial.  Nevertheless, the American government’s presence is largely felt at The Hague and as an observer nation it regularly counsels the ICC regarding cases that “advance U.S. interests and values consistent with the requirements of U.S. law.”

In contrast, progressive Pan-Africanists argue that the African Union does not hold the same powers of diplomacy within the Court like its American counterparts.

Many hint that it is the perception of African nations’ the same lacking the capacity and rule of law as Westerners to advise the ICC that allows the disparity to persist.  Yet Rwanda’s Gacaca Courts represent a prime example of how traditional court systems can work in conjunction with the international courts to adjudicate justice post-genocide.

Knowing that the ICC represents a polarizing figure on the African continent, Deputy Prosecutor Elect for the International Criminal Court Fatou Bensouda made clear that the rule of law is paramount in all the tribunal’s decisions in a keynote address at the Open Society Foundations’ OpenForum 2012 Conference in Cape Town, South Africa on May 23, 2012.

"Law is a shield for the powerless,” she proclaimed,  “not a club for the powerful."  

Despite the debate surrounding the Court, its first convictions of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo followed shortly by its second, Charles Taylor, prove rule of law and pursuit of justice clearly remain its aim.

But perhaps while simultaneously advocating for global justice, the International Criminal Court must also work to abolish the clubs for the powerful that exists within its own system and ensure that all nations share equal voice, power, and deliver penalties to those who abuses its power.

Jamila Aisha Brown is a freelance writer, political commentator, and social entrepreneur.  Her entrepreneurship, HUE, provides consulting solutions for development projects throughout the African diaspora.  You can follow her on Twitter and engage with HUE, LLC.