Gambia becomes third African country to leave ICC, more withdrawals likely

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh

Gambia’s information minister announced on television late Tuesday that the country is withdrawing from the International Criminal Court (ICC). Sheriff Bojang accused the court of a bias against African countries and leaders.

“This action is warranted by the fact that the ICC, despite being called the International Criminal Court, is in fact, an International Caucasian Court for the persecution and humiliation of people of color, especially Africans,” he said.

Gambia is the third country to leave the court this month. More are expected to do the same. Burundi and South Africa both took steps to withdraw last week. Burundi’s decision was motivated by a pending investigation into war crimes committed in the run-up to the presidential election six months ago. Gambia is not facing an investigation, but its government is long accused of violating human rights. The decision may be a preventive measure.

“In some ways, it wasn’t entirely unexpected,” Mark Kersten, a researcher on the ICC, told Humanosphere. “Gambia is led by an autocrat and it isn’t surprising that, among those willing to do away with the ICC and international criminal justice, are autocratic despots.”

South Africa took a more principled stand against the court. The country is the only to formally complete the withdrawal process after sending its letter of intent to the ICC on Monday. Gambia and Burundi still need to finish the process to exit. The rough week for the ICC does not mean its end is near.

“By invoking ICC bias and pan-African solidarity [Gambian president Yahya Jammeh] gets the benefit of being part of a movement, rather than an international pariah. So in short, this is exactly the sort of opportunistic bandwagoning we’d expect to see right now, and it’s not quite time to worry,” Kate Cronin-Furman, a political scientist at Harvard University, told Humanosphere.

It is still not good news. And it will only get worse as countries such as Uganda and Kenya are expected to announce their withdrawal soon.

“It is very possible that, in the coming days, some five to 10 states will signal their intent to withdraw from the ICC. I doubt it will be many more than that,” said Kersten. “Gambia’s withdrawal does not, in itself, make it more likely that a wider-spread withdrawal process will follow. Nevertheless, any and every withdrawal is bad news for the ICC, for international justice, and for victims and survivors of mass atrocities.”

Gambia’s decision is also notable because the current chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda is a former Gambian justice minister. She is only the second person to hold what is the highest position at the ICC. The election was an important signal to African leaders concerned by the fact that most warrants and charges are for Africans.

It was not enough to allay Gambia’s concerns.

“There are many Western countries, at least 30, that have committed heinous war crimes against independent sovereign states and their citizens since the creation of the ICC, and not a single Western war criminal has been indicted,” Bojang said.

He named former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair as an example of a Western leader who escaped justice. Some argue that he and other leaders should stand before the ICC for crimes of aggression related to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Bensouda is investigating the case and trying to determine whether a crime was committed and if it falls under the ICC’s jurisdiction.

All countries do not agree. The government of Botswana issued a statement reacting to South Africa’s decision to withdraw, on Monday. The decision “betrays rights of the victims of atrocious crimes,” said the statement. Gambian opposition leader and presidential candidate Isatou Touray made a similar point in an interview with Radio France International today.

“It is a very, very, very bad idea,” she said. “I don’t think we can afford to be isolated. And The Gambia needs that type of body to protect the fundamental human rights of the people, fundamental freedom. There is serious impunity in the country and if we do not have institutions like the ICC how are we gong to exercise our rights?”

January’s meeting of the African Union could see a revitalized push for a mass withdrawal from the ICC. Recent attempts were rebuffed by supporters of the court, such as Nigeria.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.