Writing in the International Herald Tribune ahead of the African Union Summit in Libya, Kofi Annan calls on the African Union not to abandon its promise to fight impunity for those responsible for the gravest crimes against humanity.
Eleven years ago when I opened the Rome conference that led to the founding of the International Criminal Court, I reminded the delegates that the eyes of the victims of past crimes and the potential victims of future ones were fixed firmly upon them. The delegates, many of whom were African, acted on that unique opportunity and created an institution to strengthen justice and the rule of law.
Now that important legacy rests once more in the hands of African leaders as they meet in Libya on Wednesday. The African Union summit meeting will be the first since the I.C.C. issued an arrest warrant for Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes for his alleged role in the atrocities in Darfur.
The African Union’s repeatedly stated commitment to battle impunity will be put to the test. On the agenda is an initiative by a few states to denounce and undermine the international court. In recent months, some African leaders have expressed the view that international justice as represented by the I.C.C. is an imposition, if not a plot, by the industrialized West.
In my view, this outcry against justice demeans the yearning for human dignity that resides in every African heart. It also represents a step backward in the battle against impunity.
Over the course of my 10 years as United Nations secretary general, the promise of justice and its potential as a deterrent came closer to reality. The atrocities committed in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia moved the Security Council to set up two ad hoc tribunals, building on the principles of post-World War II courts in Nuremberg and Tokyo.
These new tribunals showed that there is such a thing as effective international justice.
But these ad hoc tribunals were not enough. People the world over wanted to know that wherever and whenever the worst atrocities were committed — genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity — there would be a court to bring to justice anyone in a government hierarchy or military chain of command who was responsible. That principle would be applied without exception, whether to the lowliest soldier or the loftiest ruler.
Thus the International Criminal Court was formed. It now has 108 states, including 30 African countries, representing the largest regional bloc among the member states. Five of the court’s 18 judges are African. The I.C.C. reflects the demand of people everywhere for a court that can punish these serious crimes and deter others from committing them.
The African opponents of the international court argue that it is fixated on Africa because its four cases so far all concern alleged crimes against African victims.
One must begin by asking why African leaders shouldn’t celebrate this focus on African victims. Do these leaders really want to side with the alleged perpetrators of mass atrocities rather than their victims? Is the court’s failure to date to answer the calls of victims outside of Africa really a reason to leave the calls of African victims unheeded?
Moreover, in three of these cases, it was the government itself that called for I.C.C. intervention — the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and Uganda. The fourth case, that of Darfur, was selected not by the international court but forwarded by the U.N. Security Council.
It’s also important to remember that the I.C.C., as a court of last resort, acts only when national justice systems are unwilling or unable to do so. There will be less need for it to protect African victims only when African governments themselves improve their record of bringing to justice those responsible for mass atrocities.
The I.C.C. represents hope for victims of atrocities and sends a message that no one is above the law. That hope and message will be undermined if the African Union condemns the court because it has charged an African head of state. The African Union should not abandon its promise to fight impunity. Unless indicted war criminals are held to account, regardless of their rank, others tempted to emulate them will not be deterred, and African people will suffer.
We have little hope of preventing the worst crimes known to mankind, or reassuring those who live in fear of their recurrence, if African leaders stop supporting justice for the most heinous crimes just because one of their own stands accused.
Kofi Annan served as secretary general of the United Nations from 1997-2006 and is now president of the Kofi Annan Foundation.