The AU’s Extraordinary Summit decisions on Africa-ICC Relationship

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Dr Solomon Ayele Dersso is a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, Addis Ababa and Adjunct Professor of Human Rights, College of Governance, Addis Ababa University.


The African Union (AU) Assembly, the highest decision making body of the continental organization, took a decision on Africa’sAfrican Union relationship with the International Criminal Court (ICC) at its extraordinary summit held on 12 October 2013. In this commentary I wish to reflect on the details of the major points of the decision, their likely outcome and their implications with respect to a) the on-going Kenyan cases and b) immediate future of Africa-ICC relationship. (photo, African Union headquarters, credit)

As I will show below, the implication of the decision is that not only that Africa-ICC relationship is today worse than before the summit but also there is serious possibility that it would even get much worse.

Immediate context for the extraordinary summit

With the ascendance of Uhuru Kenyata and William Ruto to power in Kenya through generally free and fair elections taking advantage of the cases opened against them at the ICC, a clear case of tension between popular sovereignty (expressed through the ballot) and the demands of international justice arose. This issue predictably emerged on the agenda of the African Union when Uhuru Kenyata attended for the first time as President of Kenya the summit of the AU Assembly held in May 2013.

During the debate at the AU Assembly, many expressed the view that the continuation of the ICC cases against President Kenyata and his deputy Ruto undermines the sovereignty of the people of Kenya who expressed their will in a vote to represent them as their leaders and threatens the process of reconciliation in the country. The 21st summit of the AU Assembly accordingly adopted a decision (at p. 14) requesting the ICC to refer back to Kenya its cases against Kenyan President Kenyata and his deputy.

Following the suspension by the Appeals Chamber of the decision of the Trial Chamber relieving William Ruto from the obligation to attend all the proceedings of his trial and in the context of the commencement of the trial, the AU sent another letter on 10 September 2013 to the ICC.

In the letter, the AU reiterated its earlier communications to the ICC and in the context of the commencement of Vice President Ruto’s trial, requested the Court ‘to allow the Head of State of Kenya and his deputy to choose the sessions they wish to attend’ having regard to the constitutional obligations that they are required to discharge as leaders of Kenya’s popularly elected government.’

Following the ICC’s response to the AU’s letter, stating that the AU’s request does not constitute a request legally presented within the Court’s legal framework, the AU convened an extraordinary summit on 12 October 2013 to debate the future of Africa’s relationship with the ICC. The summit was called in accordance with the rules of Procedure of the AU Assembly after Kenya’s request for such summit received the support of two-thirds majority of members of the AU.

The Extraordinary summit decisions

The only good news was that the worst that many feared did not happen.As I anticipated in an opinion piece prior to the summit, the much talked-about mass withdrawal of African member states of the Rome Statute did not happen. Not even a single member country declared withdrawal from ICC.  It got even better and came as assuring when the AU Assembly chairperson Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn affirmed that ‘our goal is not and should not be a crusade against the ICC’.

This suggests a couple of things. First, the fear that the summit triggered was too exaggerated and blown out of proportions. The outcome of the summit clearly reflected that an effort was made to delicately balance between ‘sending a firm message to ICC/UNSC’ and continue to engage ICC. Second, there is no solid consensus against ICC in its entirety.  Perhaps, the size of African states who defend ICC against its total repudiation is not as insignificant as many may think.

The outcome of the summit was a decision with a number of elements. To begin with, the member states decided to circumscribe the jurisdiction of the ICC. According to the decision of the summit ‘no charges shall be commenced or continued before any International Court or Tribunal against any serving AU Head of State or Government or anybody acting or entitled to act in such capacity during their term of office’.More specifically, the AU Summit demanded that  ‘the trials of President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Samoei Ruto, who are the current serving leaders of the Republic of Kenya, should be suspended until they complete their terms of office’.

Additionally, the decision outlined other measures. These include to fast track the establishment of the criminal jurisdiction of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights and to table for discussion to the Assembly of State Parties of the ICC amendments to the ICC including on immunity of heads of state and government.

Most notable are also the three other decisions relating to UN Security Council (UNSC) and the ongoing Kenyan cases.

First, they decided ‘to set up a Contact Group of the Executive Council to be led by the Chairperson of the Council, composed of five (5) Members (one (1) per region) to undertake consultations with the Members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), in particular, its five (5) Permanent Members with a view to engaging with the UNSC on all concerns of the AU on its relationship with the ICC, including the deferral of the Kenyan and the Sudan cases in order to obtain their feedback before the beginning of the trial on 12 November, 2013.’

Second, Kenya is tasked to request the UN Security Council to defer within the framework of Article 16 of the Rome Statute the trial of President Kenyata and Vice President Ruto. Accordingly, pending the decision of the UN Security Council on Kenya’s request for deferral, the AU decision accordingly envisaged for the postponement of the trial of President Kenyata and the discontinuation of Vice President Ruto’s trial.

Third, AU members further decided that ‘President Uhuru Kenyatta will not appear before the ICC until such time as the concerns raised by the AU and its Member States have been adequately addressed by the UN Security Council and the ICC’.

Implications of these decisions

The case of immunity of heads of state and government

Legally speaking, there is very little to no chance of enforcing the decision on insulating heads of state or other senior officials with such capacity from prosecution within the framework of the Rome Statute as it stands now. By virtue of Article 27 of the Statute, all African states party to the Statute have consensually accepted the jurisdiction of ICC to prosecute heads of state and government including those currently serving.

This can be reversed only through a process of amendment of the Rome Statute. As the making of the Rome Statute was not an easy exercise, its revision would not either be an easy affair. Indeed, it would be even a much tasking process. As such, in legal terms ending current cases or ensuring that a new one would not be launched by ICC is a long term ambition, if it ever happens.

In the meantime, the AU summit decision did not change the obligation of African member states of ICC under the Rome Statute. The implication of this to President Uhuru and his deputy is that they remain bound by the existing rules of the ICC, which extends to the prosecution of heads of state and government.

The fact that the current rules of ICC stand despite the decision of the AU Assembly is significant. Most importantly, President Kenyata would be in breach of ICC obligations if he fails to appear before the court come 12 November 2013, the date when his trial is expected to commence.

The simple fact that Kenya, with support of the AU, requested for UNSC deferral would not be good enough to exonerate him from traveling to the Hague for the launching of his trial. Should he opt for not showing up at the opening of his trial on 12 November 2013, ICC may find itself in the unenviable position of issuing an arrest warrant against him.

This would have serious consequences not only for him as an individual but for Kenya as well. Undoubtedly, the issuance of an arrest warrant against him in the context of AU’s new decision would certainly take the exiting acrimony between AU and ICC to yet another level.

The case of UNSC deferral

Short of the revision of the Rome Statute, the only other path left at least as far as the Kenyan and Sudan cases is UN Security Council deferral under Article 16. Indeed, this option is the one that is sure to attract a great deal of shuttle diplomacy with Kenya and the Contact Group of the Executive Council traveling to New York and engaging UNSC members particularly the P5.

This diplomatic campaign has begun in earnest. First, Kenya has sent the request for deferral to the UN Security Council. Second, regional consultations are under way to put together the Contact Group of the Executive Council. Third, Kenya has begun engaging P5 countries of the UNSC. In fact, Kenya’s Foreign Affairs Minister has traveled to Prague to lobby delegates of the P5 countries of the UNSC. Once the Contact Group of the AU Executive Council is in place, which needs to happen fast to beat the 12 November deadline, the members would also undertake a visit to New York to engage the UNSC.

UNSC deferral of these cases would be very hard to come, if it ever will. First, the request for deferral seems to be framed until the end of the term of the officials. Under Article 16, UNSC can defer and hence effect the suspension only for a renewable period of 12 months.

Second, the UNSC can exercise its authority under Article 16 only after determining that continuing with the prosecution constitutes a threat to international peace and security within the framework of Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Looking at the cases against Kenyatta and Ruto, there is little evidence to suggest that their trial would lead to such a threat – unless UNSC members determine politically that the threat of terrorism facing Kenya (following the Westgate attacks) is reason enough to warrant the deferral.

Third, UNSC deferral under Article 16 of the Rome Statute does not end the cases. It only leads to the suspension of an ongoing investigation or prosecution. In this context, one consideration of particular importance is the implication of such suspension on the loss of the evidence on which the ICC Prosecutor may rely on. As it is, withdrawal of witnesses has been a major concern for the Prosecutor.

Immediate future of Africa-ICC relationship: From bad to worse and the worst may have yet to come 

There is no guarantee that the options being pursued would yield the outcome that the AU expected. One may even dare say that due application of the relevant legal rules seem to suggest that there is slim chance of the outcome AU expects from the options it outlined would materialize.

If their request formulated as such is not met, AU members indicated that they would convene another extraordinary summit in November. It is anticipated that AU member states, particularly those with strong sentiment against ICC, would escalate their mobilization against ICC. This may result in the adoption of far-reaching decisions, which may at that point include withdrawal, albeit even then it would not be mass withdrawal.

The recent decision of the Trial Chamber excusing President Uhuru from attending some of the proceedings of his trial (and if the Appeals Chamber of the ICC upholds the suspended decision of the Trial Chamber relieving vice president Ruto from attending some of the sessions of his trial) can ease things a bit but may not resolve the issues discussed.

The crisis in Africa-ICC relationship is far from over. Sadly, the worst may still be to come.

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Rosalind Adams says

October 28, 2013

Hi Dr. Dersso, Im a journalist and student at columbia university and wonder if i can interview you further on this issue? My email is Thanks so much.

Dov Jacobs says

October 29, 2013

Hi Salomon, thank you for your post (which could be updated with Friday's appeal Judgment on the excusal from trial of Ruto). I would just have a couple of comments on the possible use of Article 16, and on the general question of how to view the current tensions between the AU and the ICC, which I posted on my blog. Comments are welcome of course.

Solomon A. Dersso says

October 29, 2013

Thanks for the response to my comment. I agree with you that my post could be updated in the light of the Appeals Chamber decision on Ruto's excusal. Indeed, since submitting that commentary, I wrote another piece exactly on what that decision mean. It is available here

On the issue of Chapter VII of the UN Charter, while I agree that Article 16 of the Rome Statute does not require that the prosecution constitutes threat to peace and security, the UNSC in adopting the decision to defer it has to do so by invoking Chapter VII. This can only happen if UNSC determines that invoking its power under Article 16 is necessary to deal with threat to international peace and security. In other words, UNSC must have judged that continuing with prosecution (not in itself) have the effect of creating conditions that are threat to international peace and security.

On the general question of AU-ICC relationship, I don't at all think that the tension is necessarily bad. My concern was with the way the issues were formulated in the recent AU summit decision, which is defined with the main objective of bailing out Uhuru and Ruto. Otherwise, the issues that this tension raises in general terms are issues that need to come out in public, debated and addressed. I have argued along this line in my writings in other platforms.

Thanks again


October 29, 2013

Thank you Dr Solomon for a very enlightening opinion. However the worst mistake President Kenyatta and his Deputy will make is to acquiesce to their trial at the Hague.Right now they enjoy the backing of 54 heads of states which is a support they cannot afford to lose. Furthermore the argument by the AU is not a minor one. The AU takes issue with Article 27 of the Rome Statute which on the face of it appears to grant the ICC a blanket jurisdiction over every head of state accused of an ICC crime. A study of the history and origin of this article from the 1945 IMT Charter through to the Ad Hoc tribunals' statutes seems to give credence to the AU position that the ICC is exercising an exorbitant jurisdiction over President Kenyatta and Deputy President Ruto. Article 27 was simply never structured to deal with a situation like that in Kenya where the Head of State enjoys popular support. I think the AU's argument is not one to be solved by the Court invoking Article 119(1) of the Rome Statute but one that should proceed under Article 119(2) i,e, by a reference being made to the Assembly of States Parties and possibly to the ICJ


October 29, 2013

From my understanding of the article posted by Dr Solomon, it seems that there are two important issues that needs urgent attention here.
On one hand, the ICC should consider very carefully the request made by the AU a body representing 54 member states and see what they could do interms of meeting some if not all the request that was tabled. Even though this might prove very difficult as already pointed out by Dr Solomon but one would assume that it is not impossible.
On the other hand, the ICC might refuse to grant the AU what it requested and continue to defend itself as being racist. A criticism that might lead to a very large number of member states to withdraw from the Rome Statute.

While one may accept that the two leaders may have committed crimes against humanity to their own people but it is hard to ignore that the same people who the two leaders have wronged just gave them an approval to lead them.