JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — An African Union summit on a possible pullout from the International Criminal Court has opened with a blast of anger and accusations that the court is treating Africans unfairly.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Ethiopia’s foreign minister, on Friday called the court “condescending” and “a political instrument targeting Africa and Africans."
“This unfair and unjust treatment has been totally unacceptable,” he said at the start of a special meeting at AU headquarters in Addis Ababa.
But as African leaders prepare to meet for a second day of talks, there are suspicions that the threats to quit the Rome Statute, the treaty that formed The Hague-based court, may yet prove to be bluster and bluff.
Several AU member countries, including Botswana and Lesotho, have offered support for the ICC. South Africa, which considers itself a voice of moral authority on the continent, has yet to publicly take a stand. Nigeria, another major power, has not publicly supported a withdrawal.
The debate erupted after the ICC filed charges against Kenya’s president and deputy president, both accused of inciting violence after the 2007 elections. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta is due to face trial at The Hague next month, despite currently holding office.
Kenya's parliament last month passed a motion calling for the country to withdraw from the ICC, a move that has been backed by other nations including Ethiopia, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
The court has in the past faced accusations, including by Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, that it targets Africans while letting Western leaders off the hook.
All eight people currently on trial at the ICC are African, and the only person to be convicted by the court so far is militia leader Thomas Lubanga from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
However, civil society groups note that the majority of cases currently before the ICC were brought by the countries themselves. These countries, which include Ivory Coast, Uganda, the Central African Republic, Mali and Democratic Republic of Congo, had asked the ICC to investigate crimes committed within their borders.
“These states have particular authority and responsibility to dispel claims that the ICC is targeting Africa,” Georges Kapiamba, president of the Congolese Association for Access to Justice, said in a statement.
The ICC’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda of the Gambia, took action against President Kenyatta of Kenya and his deputy William Ruto only after Kenya’s government failed to ensure justice domestically.
Famed anti-apartheid leader Archbishop Desmond Tutu described the debate over the ICC as “a fight within Africa, for the soul of the continent.”
“Those leaders seeking to skirt the court are effectively looking for a license to kill, maim and oppress their own people,” Tutu wrote in an opinion piece published in South African newspapers.
“Far from being a so-called ‘white man's witch hunt,’ the ICC could not be more African if it tried.”
Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general who is from Ghana, said this week that a pullout from the ICC would leave Africa wearing a "badge of shame."
African countries played an active role in the negotiations to establish the ICC, and 34 countries in Africa — a majority of the 54 countries that make up the African Union — belong to the court.
As the AU met to discuss its relationship with the court, a letter signed by 130 civil society groups from across Africa expressed support for the role of the ICC, calling it “a crucial court of last resort.”
“Needless to say, the work and functioning of the ICC should not be beyond scrutiny and improvement,” the letter says.
“However, considerations of withdrawal risk grave consequences for civilians in Africa, who tend to bear the brunt of serious crimes committed in violation of international law."