By Stephen A. Lamony
Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan welcomes Omar Al-Bashir to Nigeria
A July editorial in The Sunday Trust
opined that the Nigerian government was right to host the Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir during a recent African Union (AU) summit despite an outstanding arrest warrants by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
However, the author’s argument that a host country cannot dictate who the AU invites to its meetings is false and based on inaccurate information. Many states in the region have demonstrated that AU obligations and those of the ICC Rome Statute are not mutually exclusive.
Only last year Malawi took a stand against Al-Bashir, a fugitive facing charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Nigeria, despite clear obligations as ICC state party, chose not to.
The 19th AU summit in July last year took place in Ethiopia, not Malawi as was originally scheduled. This change of plans was prompted by Malawi’s President Joyce Banda threatening to execute the ICC warrant against Al-Bashir if he entered her country. After being pressured by the AU and Sudan to allow Al-Bashir to attend, Banda refused to host the summit altogether.
There is no basis for Nigeria’s obligations to cooperate with the ICC, which Nigeria voluntarily joined, to be rendered moot by an AU decision calling for non-cooperation in Al-Bashir’s arrest. Most states have found a way to avoid flouting their commitments to the ICC despite the AU decision. They have encouraged Sudan to send representatives other than the president to their countries, relocated conferences, canceled visits or made it clear he will be arrested if he visits.
In 2009, Al-Bashir was invited to attend the inauguration of Zuma, the new chairperson of the African Union, as AU protocol dictates. However, South Africa advised him to stay away, as South Africa is a state party to the ICC and would arrest him. Instead, a representative of the unity government represented Al-Bashir at the ceremony. Again in 2010, Al-Bashir was told to stay away from the World Cup, President Jacob Zuma said “he respected international law, and would abide by the law.”
Right after the AU summit in 2009, Phandu Skelemani, Botswana’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, said “we will hand Al-Bashir over to the ICC if ever he came to our shores.” The Ugandan Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Henry Okello Oryem, also said that “police ‘will ensure that he is arrested’ if Al-Bashir arrives” and in the end, Al-Bashir decided not to attend an AU summit in Kampala in 2010.
In 2011, Zambia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chishimba Kambwili said “Let Al-Bashir try to come to Zambia and he will regret the day he was born. Zambia is a sovereign state and we are not going to do something just because other people have not done it.”
According to Botswana’s Foreign Affairs minister, the 2009 decision was adopted by African leaders under pressure from AU Chairman, Muammar Gaddafi, in 2010. In 2012, the Assembly of the AU requested member states to balance their AU obligations with their ICC obligations.
The editorial pointedly questions who truly has the African people’s interest at heart – the ICC or the AU. This article, however, fails to realize that a significant number of Africans want justice.
The ICC is not perfect, but it is a bulwark against impunity for victims in Africa and other situations around the world. For example, the threat of an ICC investigation may have prevented the escalation of an inter-ethnic war in the Côte d’Ivoire.
Critics of the ICC’s work in Africa and elsewhere should have the courage to acknowledge the positive effects the Court is having and the continued support for its work by many Africans. In July 2012, 6 Ministers from ECOWAS called on the ICC to investigate and prosecute crimes in Mali. This request for intervention shows their support and trust in the court. Activists in capitals from Freetown to Nairobi, from Dakar to Kinshasa, and from Pretoria to Kampala have repeatedly called on the AU to show greater support to the ICC.
But more than that, significant players like Nigeria should not take action that stymies justice for victims of grave crimes, which is precisely what welcoming Al-Bashir to Nigeria did.
This article was originally published on African Arguments.