How many African nations will follow Burundi’s departure from the ICC

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Last week, Burundi became the first nation to withdraw from the Rome Statute, bringing an end to the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction in the African country. A year after the country first threatened to abandon the Hague-based court, Burundi has made the move official.

Rights groups have condemned Burundi’s departure – including Amnesty Internationa, which insists the country’s “cynical withdrawal will not derail the wheels of justice”.

However, Burundi isn’t the only African nation that’s threatened to leave the ICC. Last year, South Africa and Gambia also said they would leave but later reversed their decisions. Kenya and Uganda have threatened to leave in the past while various other African nations have expressed their discontent with the international court.

The question now is whether Burundi’s departure will spark the kind of mass exodus from the ICC that was feared this time last year.

Will Burundi be the last country to leave the ICC?

Burundi’s departure from the ICC is significant in itself but the court would have a full-blown crisis on its hands if other African nations choose to follow suit. Luckily for the ICC, things look a lot better now than they did this time last year but there’s still a lot of resentment from African leaders.

The collective withdrawal being discussed at the turn of the year seems like a distant memory at this stage. Burundi’s departure is a far cry from the mass walkout planned at the African Union summit in January.

However, the nature of Burundi’s departure could be cause for concern. The country promptly decided to begin the withdrawal process after the ICC opened investigations related to the violence beginning in April 2015. Reports of human rights violations have been endless since President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he was seeking a third term in power and few would argue against the need for investigation.

However, Burundi’s response has been to withdraw from the ICC in what looks like a reflex reaction to investigations being opened – a pattern the court won’t want to see other nations follow.

What does Burundi’s withdrawal really mean?

Burundi’s withdrawal from the ICC might look like an attempt to escape question over human rights violations, but there’s no guarantee it will work. In fact, Amnesty International’s Head of International Justice, Matt Cannock, insists the country’s departure is meaningless in this regard.

“The Burundian government has made a cynical attempt to evade justice by taking the unprecedented step of withdrawing from the ICC,” he said about the move. “But perpetrators, including members of the security forces, cannot so easily shirk their alleged responsibility for crimes under international law committed since 2015,” he added.

“Withdrawal from the Rome Statute does not in any way absolve Burundi of its obligations to end ongoing widespread human rights violations, or to address its abject failure to deliver justice for victims at the national level.”

Cannock says the ICC is free to continue its preliminary investigations and could prosecute individuals found guilty of human rights violations.

“The ICC can continue its preliminary investigations regardless of Burundi’s efforts to stop its work by withdrawing from the Court. Even if President Pierre Nkurunziza’s government will not cooperate with the Court, the ICC has ways and means to investigate and prosecute the crimes committed.”

If the ICC takes the hardline approach and proves that withdrawing from the Rome Statute does nothing to avoid prosecution, it could prevent other nations from following in Burundi’s footsteps. It won’t solve the all of the court’s problems, though.

Need for change at the ICC

African leaders trying to dodge human rights violation and war crime charges is one thing. But the ICC has a number of fundamental issues that African governments are right to criticise. The court’s focus on events in Africa – while ignoring issues elsewhere in the world – justifies comments that the organisation is used as a tool to control African regimes.

Moreover, it gives leaders like Sudan’s Al-Bashir an excuse to discredit the court and any charges leveraged against him.

The ICC doesn’t help its own reputation either. Aside from disproportionately targeting African leaders, the court has only successfully convicted two relatively minor war criminals in its entire history. Which does nothing to show African leaders they should take the organisation seriously.

Al-Bashir has taunted the court for years, despite arrest warrants being out for the Sudanese leader. Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta had charges against him dropped after witnesses were harassed and paid off during a case against him.

A failure so far

The whole point of the ICC is to seek justice for previous war crimes and deter future leaders from similar acts. So far, the court has been an expensive and rather embarrassing failure on both counts, which makes it hard to defend the organisation.

Accusing Burundi of trying to dodge an investigation suggests the ICC is capable of charging the correct parties and getting convictions – something it has failed to do in its 20-year history of investigating events in Africa.

If the court proves it treats incidents of war crimes and human rights violations equally – regardless of where they take place in the world – it’ll remove the grounds for criticism from African leaders. And, if it proves it has the clout to actually convict those most guilty, it might actually prevent future leaders from allowing similar crimes to take place in their regimes.

Featured image: By Vincent van Zeijst – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15414322

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.