The following post was written by Mark Kersten and Mohamed Othman Chande, Chairperson of the Africa Group for Justice and Accountability and former Chief Justice of Tanzania. A version of it was published for Al Jazeera, on International Justice Day, 2022.
For many years, the International Criminal Court (ICC) was pilloried with allegations that it was biased against African states and unfairly targeted African leaders. The charges were severe and rife. They came from journalists, academics and state leaders – some of whom, it should be stressed, were more worried about their own alleged involvement in atrocities than the impartiality of the Court. Greater equality in the global distribution of accountability for international crimes – war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide – is desperately needed.
The 17th of July is International Justice Day. It commemorates the anniversary of the adoption of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. It is also a useful moment to reflect on just how international international justice is.
Accountability for mass atrocities is far from evenly distributed. To paraphrase the former U.S. War Crimes Ambassador-at-Large Stephen Rapp, when it comes to international crimes, there is only some justice in some places for some people some of the time. It was just last month that the ICC finally issued warrants for non-African nationals, citizens of the Russian-backed territory of South Ossetia; they are charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the 2008 war in Georgia.
The ICC has only investigated a handful of situations and prosecuted even fewer. Part of that is because the Court is limited in its resources and reach. For years, states have nickel-and-dimed the institution and limited its budget. In response to alleged government crimes being investigated by the ICC, some states, like Burundi and the Philippines, have frustrated the ICC’s ability to investigate crimes by withdrawing their membership from the Court. Others, including the United States, have waged sophisticated campaigns to undermine the institution’s standing and authority.
In this context, the recent commitment of the Court and many of its member-states to investigate and prosecute those responsible for mass atrocities following the Russian invasion of Ukraine is welcome. Numerous capitals have offered not only unprecedented financial support in the form of voluntary donations, but also their own investigators to help the ICC in its probe. Never before in the Court’s history has it enjoyed such tangible support. Even Washington has spoken positively of the ICC’s role in addressing atrocities in Ukraine.
The focus on the situation in Ukraine and, in particular, perpetrators from Russia may have the effect of undermining the narrative that the ICC is singularly focused on Africa. At the same time, the Court’s welcome attention on atrocities committed in Ukraine should not distract it from contributing to justice efforts on the African continent in a manner that respects the efforts of African states to address their own atrocities and is sensitive to local contexts. It can do so by pursuing accountability itself or by working with partners to galvanize states to do the hard work of holding perpetrators to account in their own courts.Continue reading