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The ICC's problematic 'heart of darkness' approach in Africa
Takura Zhangazha
October 14, 2013

The African Union’s extraordinary summit to consider its relationship with the International Criminal Court (ICC) on 11 and 12 October 2013 has been received with two different strands of debate. The first being that of ‘its about time the AU talked back to the ICC’. The second element, which was more prevalent in Western media and via African or Africa focused human rights activists, was concerned with decrying what has been referred to as African leaders’ “culture of impunity”.

Both of these arguments, correct in their own way, are not necessarily at polar ends of each other. They will however, be played out in the media for political reasons. And this is perhaps where the primary challenge of the relationship between the ICC and Africa lies. In practice, and with particular reference to Africa, the ICC has turned out to be more a global political player than a court of justice.

Not only because, as cited by the AU, it targets African leaders ‘unfairly’ but more due to the perception that it selectively applies its rules to the world’s weaker states. By default, the ICC therefore becomes a reflection of the global balance of power. While some Global South leaders will wax lyrical about how and why the ICC ignores those leaders that for example instigated the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, they know the reality to be that the ICC will never act against those same said leaders. Not for lack of justification but more as a reflection of global geo-political realities.

For those that actively support the work of the ICC in Africa, this is the conveniently ignored elephant in the room. These colleagues tend to have a noble and idealistic view of the role of the ICC when in fact it is merely an extension of the sort of politics that informs the United Nations Security Council. This is regardless of whether the Chief Prosecutor is of African origin. The political rules do not change. With the ICC it is not pragmatic for us to assume that globally all will be equal before the law. It is the easier ones to ‘catch’ that will always be hauled before the court for alleged crimes committed against humanity.

The latter point must also be examined within the context of our understanding of what has been called the universality of human rights and global equality. From an African perspective, we have been more eager to earn our place in international forums and organizations than those who have set the standards themselves. Not only as equals but as capable leaders or nations in meeting our global obligations.

These are characteristics that can be traced back to the liberation struggle era where we were able to straddle both the Eastern as well as Western global power blocs in order to further our noble causes. Indeed some of us became more socialist than the socialists and more capitalist than the capitalists, in as much as some of us have become more human rights oriented than the super-powers that selectively apply the global discourse and practice of the same.

Where we fast forward to today and take the example of the ICC’s attitude toward our continent, we might need to revisit what we mean by global equality. Apart from the ideals that are outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other attendant UN documents, we must engage with the Global North with more firmness in understanding who we are as opposed to basic mimicry.

To explain further, where we have sought to be human rights defenders/activists, we must not do so without application to our own domestic/continental context or act in order to get approval from colleagues in the West. We must challenge any actions that portray Africa as the only continent where human rights violations occur or are in need of a ‘colonial style’ center in the north for validation and remedy.

Representations of what we consider and know to be human rights violations or crimes against humanity should not be done in order to whet the appetite for a Conradian ‘heart of darkness’ Western understanding of our continent. They should be done to re-assert our shared and equal humanity with the rest of the world, not in order that we perpetuate the myth about gross human rights violations being the specific preserve of Africa and Africans. The ICC must actively give the impression that it intends to implement the same rules to everyone regardless of their continent of origin let alone their status in global geopolitics.

The AU is therefore politically correct to raise specific concerns with the United Nations about sitting presidents having to travel to The Hague for trial during their terms of office. It is a necessary political position to take given the subservient role in global affairs Africa has had to be subjected to since the liberal interventionism in Ivory Coast, Libya and Mali. It is also significant that in its resolutions, the AU also committed to ending the culture of impunity and bringing all perpetrators of human rights violations to justice through the African Court of Justice and Human Rights. It may appear as though this is a case of the leaders club protecting its own members, but it is however a step in a more organic and equal internationally justiciable human rights direction.

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