The floodgates have opened. Over the past two weeks, three African countries have said they will leave the International Criminal Court, the world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal. The latest, Gambia, is perhaps the boldest.
“This action is warranted by the fact that the ICC, despite being called the International Criminal Court, is in fact an International Caucasian Court for the persecution and humiliation of people of color, especially Africans,” said Gambia’s information minister, Sheriff Bojang, on state television.
ICC critics in Africa are quick to point out that all but one of the 10 investigations undertaken by the Hague-based court have focused on African leaders. To even the score, Gambia’s president Yahya Jammeh has asked the ICC to investigate the European Union over the deaths of thousands of African migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean. Gambia, where youth unemployment is almost 40%, has lost entire villages to migration, mostly to Europe as well as China.
The ICC has not responded to Jammeh’s request, according to a government statement. “There are many Western countries, at least 30, that have committed heinous war crimes against independent sovereign states and their citizens since the creation of the ICC and not a single Western war criminal has been indicted,” the statement said.
Last week, South Africa said it would quit the ICC, following in the footsteps of Burundi, which voted to leave the court on Oct. 12, five months after the ICC announced a preliminary investigation into human rights abuses in the country. Kenya, whose president and deputy president were put on trial over post electoral violence in 2007 and 2008, is also debating a departure. Members of the African Union supported calls to leave the ICC at a summit in July.
Leaving the court is not immediate. A country must first submit a letter to the United Nations general secretary; withdrawal takes effect about a year later. But any investigations underway before that point will still continue.
Gambia’s announcement, like Burundi’s, does not represent the same threat to the court as the departure of South Africa or (maybe) Kenya. But a mass exit by African countries would undoubtedly hobble the ICC. African countries make up the single largest regional bloc—accounting for 34 of the 124 countries that have signed the Rome Statue, the treaty that established the international tribunal in 2002.
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