The withdrawals of South Africa, Burundi and the Gambia from the International Criminal Court have generated much discussion in the past few weeks. After shock and despondency, commentary has shifted to new and creative ways of dealing with the ICC’s ‘Africa problem’. Some of these proposals are truly original, for instance Ambassador Scheffer’s suggestion that African states should target non-African states to balance the ICC’s case docket, while others strike a more measured (Mark Kersten here) but ultimately hopeful (Darryl Robinson here and here) tone about the prospects of salvaging the international criminal justice project. As far as I can tell, only one commentator engages head on with the full spectrum of critiques and problems that the ICC faces, making Tor Krever’s conclusion that “little has changed” particularly noteworthy. In this post, I want to suggest that the conflict between the ICC and African states has poisoned the debate in subtle and imperceptible ways that raise troubling questions about the future of the international criminal justice project.
The Shifting Debate
The debate about the ICC’s role in Africa has certainly shifted in the past few weeks. At the ongoing Assembly of States Parties (ASP) in The Hague, civil society representatives are, for the first time, voicing formerly taboo opinions, like the suggestion that Al-Bashir may benefit from immunity under customary international law. To be sure, civil society groups are not endorsing this legalistic argument, which has long been put forward by prominent scholars of international law (see here, here and here), but it is certainly a revolution of sorts when NGOs acknowledge that the African Union (AU)’s denunciation of the ICC’s conflicting case law on Head of State immunity is more than just Machiavellian politicking aimed at shielding dictators.
Whatever the merits of the AU and South Africa’s legalistic position on Bashir’s immunity, it is hard to deny that a major shift may be afoot when the ICC’s President rushes to welcome the justice minister of South Africa, which just repudiated its membership of the Court, in a last-ditch attempt to accommodate his government’s concerns and, hopefully, find a way out of ‘the impasse’.
This is not to suggest that the ICC should not engage in diplomacy. If there is a way to change South Africa’s withdrawal decision, then the Court’s representatives should certainly try. However, in the rush to stem the prospect of diminished membership, the ICC must not lose sight of the bigger picture and the ideals on which it is premised. The real danger is that the ICC vs. Africa quagmire has already irreversibly changed the debate, with negative long-term consequences for the Court and its supporters. Read the rest of this entry…