Foreign Policy Blogs

AU Chairman: ICC Singles Out African Leaders

AU Chairman: ICC Singles Out African Leaders

The African Union Commission Chairman, Jean Ping, yesterday told an audience in Washington that the International Criminal Court continues to target African leaders unfairly, accusing the body of “double standards” as it seeks to try those accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide — most recently in Sudan and Kenya.

Noting that atrocities which occur in other geographic locations like Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Gaza and Georgia are often not taken up by the court — and that African defendants are often assumed to be guilty when paraded in front of the media — Ping asked an audience assembled at the U.S. Institute of Peace, “Where is the habeas corpus?”

Ping’s remarks highlight ongoing hostilities between African countries and the UN-backed ICC, despite the fact that most African countries are signatories to the Rome Statute.

The former foreign minister from Gabon also took the opportunity to highlight a number of initiatives that AU is making to increase its peace and security architecture.  At the heart of the AU, he said, is “human security” and the need to “redefine the concept of sovereignty and non-interference in the affairs of state entities.”

The AU’s predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was often criticized, and even lampooned, for it’s inaction with regards to member states that terrorized their own people.  The AU Constitutive Act, and subsequent amendments, Ping said, give the AU the authority to intervene in member states when necessary in an effort to combat a “culture of impunity” that has plagued Africa for decades.

Despite successful interventions in Burundi, Kenya and the Comoros Islands — and efforts to prevent Somalia from descending further into chaos — many have been disappointed with recent AU efforts regarding Cote D’Ivoire and Libya.

Ping, who once chaired the UN General Assembly, said that even when mandated by the UN, foreign intervention in African states is “not normal”, and said the AU has its own capacity for peacekeeping, including an early warning system, an emerging African Standby Force and a so-called “Panel of the Wise.”

While these tools, with strong assistance from the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) like the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), have allowed the AU to avert all out civil war in a number of instances, few believe that the AU has the capacity or security infrastructure to curb major conflicts like those afflicting Cote D’Ivoire and Libya.

Indeed, as Peter Godwin wrote in the New York Times earlier this week, the AU’s reliance on what he called the “democracy-defying model” of forging power-sharing agreements between aging dictators in Kenya and Zimbabwe and opposition movements to avert state-sanctioned atrocities is not sustainable.

Hence, many have questioned the much publicized AU “road map” for Libya, which Ping defended with gusto.  Just days after the NATO no-fly zone was imposed, a group of five African heads of state, led by South African President Jacob Zuma, met with Libyan leader Momar Gaddafi in Tripoli, as well as rebel leaders in Bengazi, urging both to adhere to a ceasefire.

“We were the first to put our feet in Libya, the rest, they were in the air,” said Ping, referring to the NATO allies, whom he added had no road map beyond the air campaign.  “We negotiated in Tripoli and they accepted,” he said.  “Then we moved to Bengazi,” he added, “but they put preconditions, the biggest being that they cannot negotiate with Gaddafi.”

Here lies the crux of the matter.  Momar Gaddafi has long viewed himself as an African leader, going so far as to declare himself AU Chairman: ICC Singles Out African Leaders“king of kings” before serving as head of the African Union in 2009, much to the organization’s embarrassment.  It is a well-known fact that Gaddafi pays AU dues for multiple, impoverished African countries, and has never shied away from assisting his fellow African dictators out of a tight jam.  It comes as no surprise that Libya’s opposition has little faith in the AU as a fair broker.

In his speech, Ping made much of the AU’s new thinking on “sovereignty” in his remarks in Washington, pointing in particular to a 2007 amendment to the AU’s Constitutive Act, which declares:

the right of the Union to intervene in a Member State pursuant to a
decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war
crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity as well as a serious
threat to legitimate order to restore peace and stability to the Member
State of the Union upon the recommendation of the Peace and Security

This is, by far, the most progressive interpretation of the so-called “responsibility to protect” doctrine championed by many at the UN who support humanitarian intervention.  The challenge for the African Union are twofold.  First, the body must continue, as Ping noted, to build up its own Peace and Security toolbox so that it has the ability to intervene when innocent’s lives are at risk in Africa.  The second challenge, much more daunting, is building the credibility that it is willing to do so, with all the political, financial and historical baggage that entails.



Robert Nolan

Robert Nolan is Editor-in-Chief of New Media at the Foreign Policy Association and a writer and producer of the Great Decisions Television Series on PBS. A former Peace Corps volunteer in Zimbabwe and graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, he has interviewed numerous heads of state, Nobel Prize winners, artists and musicians, and policymakers.

Great Decisions Discussion group