October 13, 2013

When African Union (AU) heads of state gathered in Addis Ababa this weekend for an extraordinary summit, Africans might have expected that their leaders would have extraordinary issues to discuss. They might have asked: would the poverty that maintains a stranglehold on millions of people across the continent, for instance, killing scores of children who lack access to clean water, nutrition, and health care, be on the agenda?

Or maybe the ongoing conflicts in Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Somalia that have left tens of thousands dead, injured, and traumatized and millions displaced would take center stage? Or how about Central African Republic, where a predatory militia has taken control of much of the country, fostering sectarian tensions that are displacing scores of villagers every day?

Some might have speculated that the loss of hundreds of Eritrean, Somali, and other African lives fleeing from conflict, repression, and poverty, in a recent boat capsizing off Lampedusa, Italy, would move the human rights crises in Eritrea and Somalia and the desperate need for development to stem economic and political migration onto the agenda.

Any or all of these issues certainly warrant extraordinary attention - and measures from African heads of state.

But no, the depressing truth is that the main issue on the agenda in Addis Ababa was how to protect a handful of Africa's most powerful people.

AU leaders concluded that instead of addressing any of the urgent human rights disasters that threaten Africans, displacing millions and forcing tens of thousands to flee abroad, the most urgent issue was to unite their voices to obstruct the work of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which has become the last, best hope for many of those Africans who have been victims of atrocities implicating some of these very same leaders.

Let's be candid. The ICC is not beyond criticism. Like all other international institutions, starting with the United Nations and the Security Council, the ICC has its problems, and the cases that reach it are vulnerable to international double standards. It cannot yet ensure that justice reaches the gravest crimes regardless of where they are committed. Nonetheless, it remains the most significant institution and achievement of the world community to fight impunity for the most serious crimes and against the most powerful people. Over the past few years, significant progress has been made to hold even heads of states to account - such as former Liberian president Charles Taylor and former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. A key step forward has been the recognition that official status is not a bar to prosecution for the gravest crimes.

Yet despite paying lip service to ending impunity, the central proposal out of Addis was that sitting heads of state or anybody acting or entitled to act in such a capacity should have immunity from prosecution. That means Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir should be not be required to appear for trial for genocide and crimes against humanity, or Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta for crimes against humanity. (Let's not forget that Bashir is currently the only head of state aside from Syria's Bashar al-Assad who is implicated in bombing his own people on a daily basis.)

There doesn't seem to have been much support for the much-rumored mass withdrawal from the ICC. However, the notion that sitting heads of state should have immunity for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity is not just appallingly self-serving, it's repugnant given the kind of disincentive it would create for anyone to leave power, as well as the incentive it creates for the unscrupulous to gain or maintain power at whatever cost-by murder, coup, or fraudulent elections, just to name a few.

The proposal also directly undermines the AU's own Charter and principles that proclaim support for the rule of law, respect for human rights, and an end to impunity. But most of all, the AU's message from Addis is a profoundly disturbing message to Africans that their leaders' biggest priority is not development, good governance, or respecting basic rights; it's ensuring that the leaders themselves are insulated from justice, at whatever price.