Africa This Month: International Institutions Stumble

African Union, United Nations, Africa This Month, ICC, International Criminal Court, World news analysis, news on Africa, latest news headlines, latest news Africa, international politics

International Criminal Court © STRINGERimage

October 31, 2016 23:45 EDT

Despite divisions and conflicts, African leaders are behaving more assertively in their messy dealings with the international community and its imperfect institutions.

This month, Africa hosted a big international gathering. Delegates from over 150 countries met in Kigali, Rwanda, to reach a global deal to end the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFC).


HFCs are “highly potent greenhouse gases, thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide.” They are used in refrigerants. As temperatures rise due to global warming and consumers in emerging economies become more prosperous, demand for refrigerators, air conditioners and other cooling devices is booming.

Meanwhile, supply in turn is boosting demand. Economies of scale and efficiencies in the production process are leading to larger numbers of cooling devices at cheaper prices in markets worldwide. As a result, a higher amount of HFCs are being released into the environment, heating an already warming planet further.

It is important to remember that the HFCs were brought in after chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) were phased out under the 1987 Montreal Protocol because they were thinning the ozone layer. By bringing in HFCs for CFCs, humanity exchanged one evil for another. With CFCs gone, the ozone layer might be healing but the planet is heating up. Such is the scale and speed of the crisis wrought by HFCs that all countries at the conference recognized they had to do something. After all-night negotiations, they reached a deal.

According to US Secretary of State John Kerry, this deal is a “monumental step forward” and will “reduce the warming of the planet by an entire half a degree centigrade.” The fact that this deal was concluded in Kigali instead of Kuala Lumpur or Kansas City is important. It is the first big global deal in recent memory to be concluded in Africa, and this is of enormous significance for the future.


In previous editions of Africa This Month, the authors have examined the African Union (AU). It turns out that this body is increasing in importance. Even as the world is fixated on the forthcoming US election, five candidates have jumped into the fray to chair the African Union Commission.

Many like Babatunde Fagbayibo, a young law professor, argue that “as long as the current structure of the AU remains in place, it will make little difference who the next chair is.” Fagbayibo argues that the AU Commission needs more institutional authority to implement directives and penalize states that refuse to comply. He wants greater clarity in the role of the chair, along with increased powers to make it a worthwhile position.

These authors find Fagbayibo’s arguments persuasive. They disagree with him on one point, though. The person who chairs the AU Commission is critical at this juncture of African history. In the not too distant past, Jacques Delors, as president of the European Commission, was responsible for “the acceleration of history” and the creation of the European Union (EU) as we know it today.

It was Delors who set out a grand vision for the EU, playing a crucial role in the Single European Act, the single market and the creation of the euro. Delors’ “acceleration of history” refers to his bold decision to welcome East Germany into the heart of Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This ardent European was much more than a technocrat and once prophetically declared, “Europe needs a soul” in an eloquently Gallic call reminiscent of Rousseau. Without Delors, it is impossible to imagine the EU of today.

Now, all is not going well in the EU. As one of the authors has argued earlier, Delors “went too far in pushing through the euro.” On balance though, Delors was a visionary the EU needed, to make its “tryst with destiny.” Delors proves that leaders matter even in supranational institutions. Fagbayibo is right in saying that the structure of the AU needs to change, but it would help to have someone like Delors as the chair of the AU Commission to make the case.

It is for this reason that five candidates for chair of the AU Commission is terrific news for Africa. It proves that, for all its limitations, the position matters. The election of the chair will be messy. Regional considerations will come into play. So will the rivalry between Anglophone and Francophone countries. The process will involve backroom deals and horse trading. However, the mere fact that the continent has five candidates to choose from is a positive development for the future.

As optimists, the authors perceive the AU to be inching forward. For instance, in the July edition of Africa This Month, the authors examined the significance of the introduction of African passports by the AU. Such a move chips away at arbitrary colonial borders that have long shackled Africa’s potential. It paves the way toward increasing intra-African trade, an essential ingredient in boosting economic growth in the continent and mitigating poverty. The strengthening of the AU facilitates such developments even if the progress may seem to be too slow for its critics.

These critics have a point when they argue that the AU “is slow to respond to security threats, that it prioritises power over justice and that it fails to adequately represent the needs of this continent’s 1.11 billion citizens.” The AU bureaucracy also comes in for a lot of flak. Yet as the Institute for Security Studies points out, the AU “puts a lot of effort, much of it effective, into smaller initiatives that yield incremental results.” Critics could do well to remember that the AU is certainly no EU, but it is no South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation either. So far, it has had significant leaders, but perhaps it now needs a Delors in the saddle. The chance of this occurring increases incrementally with five candidates to choose from.


It is not an everyday occurrence that the United Nations (UN) is accused of excesses and its troops fire to cause civilian deaths. Protests against the UN’s peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic (CAR), or MINUSCA as it is known by its French acronym, broke out on October 20 and turned violent. Protesters wanted MINUSCA to leave for failing to protect the local population. When demonstrators tried to break into MINUSCA headquarters, its troops fired on them, leaving four people dead.

As expected, there are conflicting accounts of this tragic incident. Protest organizers claim peacekeepers started shooting protesters. MINUSCA denies the charge and argues that the soldiers merely fired teargas. On top of the four killed, 14 people were injured in the clashes, including five peacekeepers.

Fair Observer - World News, Politics, Economics, Business and CultureFair Observer provides you deep and diverse insights for free. Remember that we still have to pay for servers, website maintenance and much more. So, donate now to keep us free, fair and independent.

Protesters claim that MINUSCA has abdicated its duties and failed to protect civilians from armed rebels. Furthermore, they complain that MINUSCA peacekeepers have committed crimes against the local population. Allegations of sexual abuse have emerged repeatedly. In spring 2014, reports of largely French peacekeepers sexually abusing a number of young children in exchange for food or money surfaced, leaving the UN red faced.

Peacekeepers are in CAR because of the oft repeated African story of a bloody civil war. In March 2013, Muslim Séléka rebels booted out then-President François Bozizé and launched a campaign of terror where no one—the old, women or children—was off limits. Their favorite weapon for slaughter was balaka, a local machete they used with much relish to hack human flesh.

Unsurprisingly, a counterforce appeared in the form of anti-balaka vigilante groups. These mainly Christian groups were purportedly Bozizé’s creation with the majority of fighters being youths without any schooling, with some as young as 10. The anti-balaka competed with the Séléka in brutality. The result is bitter and bloody where ethnic and religious divides are sowing deep hatred and creating a vicious cycle of vendetta.

In 2014, after Bozizé was deposed, the UN slapped sanctions on him and two rebel leaders for “undermining peace and fuelling violence in the conflict-torn country.” Thousands have been killed and more than 1 million out of a population of 4.5 million have been displaced. Syria may be grabbing headlines, but what is going on in CAR is no less tragic. The numbers reported by Genocide Watch with 1.5 million people facing hunger and 2.3 million children affected make grim reading. By some accounts, civil war in CAR has spiraled into genocide. Hence, the UN sent MINUSCA to restore a semblance of order and curb the worst of the violence.

Paragraph 30 of UN Security Council Resolution 2149 of April 10, 2014, created MINUSCA and expressly spelled out its mandate to protect civilians. In particular, MINUSCA is supposed to protect civilians from threat of physical violence with a special focus on women and children. Given MINUSCA’s mandate, the allegations of child abuse and the firing on protesters are especially damaging to its reputation. It gives the impression of the fence eating the crop and raises important issues.

The first pertains to the efficacy of the UN. This international body is the place where nation states deliberate. When states crumble and conflict erupts, it is this body representing the comity of nations that is expected to act and intervene. However, this body is infamously unwieldy and bureaucratic. Perhaps it is bound to be this way given the number of parties, interests and people involved. However, there is a case to be made for reforms when it comes to peacekeeping. Once a decision to send troops is made, there has to be a better way of managing them.

Allegations against UN peacekeepers have emerged in various situations over a protracted period of time. They chip away at the legitimacy of an organization that the world still needs. If nothing else, nation states need a club where they can have a jaw-jaw to avoid war-war. It would be helpful if this club can implement its decisions effectively and keep its peacekeepers in line. This means that the UN has to reform its peacekeeping operations, ensure accountability of action and sort out long-overdue command and control issues. The incident in CAR is a wake-up call for the UN to regain legitimacy before it is too late.


It is not only the UN but also the International Criminal Court (ICC) that is in trouble. This month, three African countries, South Africa, Burundi and Gambia, announced their decision to withdraw from the ICC. It is widely believed that Kenya, Namibia and Uganda may soon follow suit. Before these withdrawals, African states had made numerous threats to disengage from the ICC but failed to act upon them. Now, African states might be about to withdraw en masse.

The current developments force us to delve into the ICC. Prima facie, its founding tenets are noble. The Preamble of the Rome Statute, the ICC’s originating treaty, states that the court was formed in an effort “to put an end to impunity for the perpetrators of [grave international] crimes” and “to guarantee lasting respect for and the enforcement of international justice.” The urgency in those words speaks to a shared resolve to prevent future wide-scale atrocities. The ICC was also an attempt to exorcise the demons and horrors of heinous crimes that have plagued humanity in the past. Thus, the ICC has been envisaged as the tribunal of last resort for international crimes and the world’s first permanent international criminal court.

The situation is complex. The ICC serves a valuable role for states where abuses are rampant and justice is denied. Yet the perception that Africans are picked on alone is obviously a touchy one …

Like many organizations, including the UN, EU and AU, the ICC was conceived on the basis of lofty ideals. However, human beings are complex and flawed creatures. In its actions, the ICC has certainly fallen short of its founding precept. In fact, African states have long argued that the court has been partial in its dispensation of justice. They make the point that Africans are singled out for prosecution, and serious atrocities in other parts of the world are almost invariably ignored. They have come to believe that, in the family of nation states, the strong escape justice while the weak are persecuted.

Sheriff Bojang, Gambia’s information minister, has derisively called the ICC the “International Caucasian Court.” There is certainly truth in the assertion that the ICC has focused mainly on Africa. Only one of its ten investigations has been conducted outside the continent. Georgia, the only investigation outside Africa, has yet to result in an indictment and is seen as a test for its future. Besides, many of the most violent parts of the world such as Syria and Iraq have not ratified the Rome Statute. Neither have big powers like China or dynamic democracies such as India. Even the US voted against the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in 1998.

Critics point out that the ICC has no direct authority to investigate American troops in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Torture and drone strikes by the US are just about beyond its purview. Palestine has pressed the ICC to charge Israel with war crimes, but the court has no chance in hell to do anything against Israel, which has not ratified the Rome Statute and promised never to do so.

It is certainly true that justice must be enforced on all violators of human rights through a genuinely independent adjudication process. It is also true that the ICC lacks both the conditions of universality of application and independence in process. The complementarity principle, where the ICC steps in only when states refuse to act, also inhibits the ICC’s efficacy. Critics rightly point out that military commanders and political leaders of major powers are shielded from international criminal justice. There is certainly a theoretical case to be made to try some American neoconservatives who advocated torture and service personnel who practiced it, if not George W. Bush or Tony Blair. However, the treaty-based apparatus of the international criminal justice system and its institutions put them beyond the purview of the ICC.

Yet it is also true that victims of genocide, murder, rape and other human rights abuses need justice. Perfection must not become the enemy of the good. Compromise is not evil but inevitable, and the loftiest ideals have to deal with the messiness of human nature.

African states claim that an initiative meant to protect vulnerable people from brutal rulers has degenerated into an instrument of hegemonic power against African leaders. Hence, they have no choice but to withdraw from the ICC. The reality is more complex. African states are withdrawing from the ICC to further the interests of their leaders.

Burundi is a classic case in point. As the authors reported in the July edition of Africa This Month, President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for an unconstitutional third term led to an attempted coup. Although the coup failed, violence broke out in the country and was crushed brutally. In the process, Nkurunziza’s loyalists purportedly committed grave atrocities. The authors pointed out that the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) had documented 348 extrajudicial executions and about 651 cases of torture in Burundi between April 2015 and April 2016.

Therefore, on April 25, 2016, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, announced that the ICC would be opening a preliminary examination into the Burundi situation. In her announcement, she indicated that she was compelled to act by the fact that “more than 430 persons were reportedly killed, at least 3,400 people [were] arrested and over 230,000 Burundians forced to seek refuge in neighbouring countries.” It is this preliminary examination laced with the prospect of potential future investigation and prosecution that Burundi’s government sought to preempt by its withdrawal from the court. Simply put, by jettisoning the ICC, Burundi is saving Nkurunziza’s skin.

Gambia argues that it is pulling out of the ICC following its frustrations with the court, which it says has refused to charge the EU for the numerous deaths of African refugees and migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Further, it has accused myriad Western countries of going scot free despite atrocities they have committed against other independent states.

However, there is more than meets the eye. It is pertinent to note that Gambian President Yahya Jammeh took charge after a coup in 1994 and has already served five terms. Jammeh is facing protests and is under pressure to step down. Human Rights Watch has termed Gambia a “state of fear” with arbitrary arrests, torture and killings a feature of daily life. His intelligence apparatus and a paramilitary hit squad known as the “Jungulars” strike terror into the hearts of his people.

As expected, Jammeh is running for another term. Elections are scheduled for December. This time the opposition is inspired and vocal. Jammeh is likely to act like his counterpart in Burundi and unleash his muscle men to stick to his throne. In a twist of irony, Bensouda was once Gambia’s attorney general and justice minister until she was fired by Jammeh in 2000. Timing is everything. Given forthcoming elections, it is in Jammeh’s interest for Gambia to withdraw from the ICC so as to hedge against the risk of being dragged to the court.

While the withdrawal of other countries can be explained as cynical actions of repressive leaders, the reasons for South Africa’s withdrawal are more complex and worrying. In many ways, South Africa is the first country on the continent with political, institutional and economic gravitas that sets the tone for the rest of the region. The country was brought to task for inviting and then failing to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has been accused of genocide and war crimes. When this row broke out in 2015, South Africa declared it might leave the ICC. This year it has gone ahead and done so.

South Africa’s argument for withdrawal is that the Rome Statute contradicts the country’s diplomatic immunity laws. This argument has merit but does not entirely wash given South Africa’s highly progressive constitution. The real reason for South Africa’s withdrawal might be that it prizes African solidarity over international justice.

The situation is complex. The ICC serves a valuable role for states where abuses are rampant and justice is denied. Yet the perception that Africans are picked on alone is obviously a touchy one, given the continent’s history of exploitation both during colonization and the subsequent Cold War. More recently, the ICC has not covered itself in glory. In the April edition of Africa This Month, the authors pointed out how the ICC had made a fool of itself in Kenya. Yet the authors hold the view that improving the imperfect ICC is a better idea than abandoning it altogether.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: STRINGERimage

Support Fair Observer

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

Will you support FO’s journalism?

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Donation Cycle

Donation Amount

The IRS recognizes Fair Observer as a section 501(c)(3) registered public charity (EIN: 46-4070943), enabling you to claim a tax deduction.

Make Sense of the World

Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

Support Fair Observer

Support Fair Observer by becoming a sustaining member

Become a Member