(Photo: VOA News)
Allegations that the International Criminal Court (ICC) is biased against Africa aren’t going away. On the contrary, in the wake of the victory of Uhuru Kenyatta in Kenya’s recent Presidential elections, they seem to be increasingly common. Most recently, at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa this week, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn declared that the ICC is “hunting” Africans because of their race.
I continue to maintain that the Court is not biased against Africa, neo-colonial nor racist. Africa is not monolithic and many states continue to support the ICC and its mandate. As has often been pointed out, many African citizens don’t share the views of their governments and, in fact, would like to see them held accountable. At the same time, even if some cases that aren’t before the Court should be, no case or situation currently before the Court shouldn’t be. As Abdul Tejan-Cole writes, ”while it is true that the ICC can be lambasted for inconsistent case selection, there is not a single case before the Court that one could dismiss as being frivolous or vexatious.” Moreover, in cases where the Court has functioned to bolster the legitimacy and the political and military aims of African leaders (like Museveni in Uganda, Ouattara in Cote D’Ivoire, and Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo), governments have been more than happy to accept and manipulate the Court’s interventions for their own political purposes.
At the same time, it would be folly to deny the fact that the ICC works within an international structure that is far too unequal and within an international hierarchy that no longer reflects the distribution of power in the world. This structure reinforces the reality that powerful states are too often shielded from accountability. The Court’s promise was to transcend this by being an impartial institution independent of the realpolitik machinations of institutions like the United Nations Security Council and ‘great powers’ like the United States. It hasn’t been able to do so. That’s no secret. No honest advocate of international criminal justice can say that he or she is satisfied with the current reach of international criminal justice. The Court is selective and that is a problem.
So how did we get here? In my view, part of the problem comes down to the ‘perception game’ – how the ICC has communicated its work and decision-making.
Too often the ICC and its strongest proponents have responded to criticisms by being reactionary and defensive rather than reflective and measured. Far too often the Court has blamed its negative perception on external sources, refusing to take responsibility for how it is perceived by others. In an interview that touched on the question of the Court’s perceived bias against Africa, Bensouda suggested that it was the media’s fault. More recently, when recently asked about whether the Court has dealt poorly with the perception that it is biased against Africa, Bill Pace, the head of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, responded by apportioning blame on the media and academia (update: see Pace’s response to this post in the comments below).
It is unwise and possibly even dangerous to refuse to understand how you are perceived by others, whether you are a state, an institution or an individual. It is a refusal that demonstrates, above all, immaturity. The ICC needs to – and can – avoid going down this path. But it can only do so if it is honest and accepts that it has an active role to play in the ‘perception game‘. It also has to realize that its current messaging strategies aren’t working.
(Photo caption from ‘The Prosecutor’)
Working against the Court is the fact that the playing field in the ‘perception game’ is highly uneven. In comparison to states like Kenya and institutions like the African Union, the ICC has very few resources for counter-messaging. Sadly, key states that ostensibly support the Court’s work haven’t picked up the slack.
But there’s also another problem. As I recently argued, the ICC has responded to allegations of being biased by consistently repeating the same set of responses: the vast majority of African states have signed and ratified the Rome Statute; there are numerous preliminary investigations in situations outside of Africa; the Court can only investigate situations under its jurisdiction; the argument that the ICC is biased is the work of a few autocrats and anti-ICC dictators afraid of justice, etc. All of these arguments are, to varying degrees, true. The problem is that they seem to be falling on deaf ears and have been for quite some time. They may be well-versed amongst proponents of the Court but, again, it is worth asking: has anyone who initially believed that the ICC was biased against African been convinced that it isn’t?
So what can the ICC do? Here are a few suggestions from an ICC supporter who wants to get beyond this ICC-Africa debate. Continue reading