In October, the East African nation of Burundi became the first country on Earth to voluntarily withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The controversial decision by Burundi’s lawmakers set in motion a dangerous domino effect, with South Africa quickly following suit to abandon the 1998 Rome Statute treaty that founded the ICC.
It now looks like Kenya will be the next ICC deserter, opening the floodgates for a mass exodus of countries which have been scrutinized by the court for their questionable human rights records.
The 124-member, intergovernmental court, based in The Hague, is charged with prosecuting cases of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and, unlike the International Court of Justice in Geneva, is legally independent from the United Nations.
So why is the African flight from the ICC important?
To begin with, it sets a dangerous precedent for governments — not only in Africa, but throughout the developing world — to blatantly ignore international human rights standards by simply saying that they no longer want to play by the rules set down in global forums.
It also could mark the beginning of the end for the ICC.
Ninety-four out of 110 Burundi lawmakers voted in favor of the withdrawal plan, just months after the ICC announced it would investigate the country’s ongoing violence.
In the last 18 months, Burundi, under the oppressive hand of its third-term president Pierre Nkurunziza, has been beset by a nonstop torrent of bloodshed, torture, death squads and chaos.
The ICC has placed the blame for the carnage smack on the shoulders of Nkurunziza.
The Bujumbura lower house decision, which was also unanimously adopted by the Senate and applauded by the Burundi masses, came on the heels of mounting regional resentment against the international body, which many Africans feel has unfairly targeted their nations.
Their claim is not without merit.
The ICC is supposed to try cases of human rights abuse from around the world, but so far, it has focused almost entirely on Africa’s battlefields, prosecuting rebels, warlords and government leaders from the graveyards of Sudan to the jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
African leaders have repeatedly insisted that the court is a biased postcolonial tool for Europe to persecute their administrations, while ignoring similar allegations of human rights abuses in other parts of the world.
Moreover, the ICC, in its short decade-and-a-half lifetime, has been beleaguered by a cavalcade of allegations, not least of which include witness tampering and a lack of participation by many of the world’s more powerful nations, most notably, the United States.
These controversies have allowed ICC detractors to hammer the court’s reputation and credibility, thus setting the stage for the current African pullback.
Of course, exiting the ICC could entail consequences for Burundi and the other African deserters.
There could be a cutback in development aid or trade sanctions from Western partners.
But geopolitical alliances and the need for cooperation on more pressing global issues such as the fight against terrorism might just save the ICC defectors from having to pay the piper.
And so, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of Africans being murdered and tortured by their governments and leaders, another major casualty of the Burundi decision might just turn out to be the International Criminal Court itself.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected].