(Pretoria) - More than 130 civil society and human rights groups from across Africa issued a statement today calling upon African states that are parties to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to reaffirm their commitment and their obligation to cooperate with the court.

The statement follows a decision by the African Union (AU) at its summit meeting on July 1-3, 2009 that its member states "shall not cooperate" with the ICC in the arrest of President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan. The ICC issued an arrest warrant for al-Bashir on March 4 for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Darfur.

"The AU's decision that states should not cooperate with the ICC threatens to block justice for victims of the worst crimes committed on the continent," said James Gondi of the Eastern Africa International Criminal Justice Initiative in Nairobi.

"We urge our governments to reaffirm their commitment to fighting impunity by supporting and cooperating with the ICC," said Oby Nwankwo of Nigeria's Civil Resource Development and Documentation Centre.

The AU decision is contrary to its own constitutive act, which rejects impunity, the group statement said. It also noted that the AU decision was inconsistent with the obligations under the ICC statute that all states parties cooperate with the ICC, including in the arrest and surrender of criminal suspects.

"The ICC remains a crucial court of last resort for Africa when national courts are unable or unwilling to bring justice for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes," said Anton du Plessis of South Africa's Institute for Security Studies.

African governments were among the first states to ratify the Rome Statute, the agreement that led to creation of the ICC in 2002. Thirty African countries are now parties to the Rome Statute, representing a majority of AU member states.

"African states were central to the establishment of the ICC and are essential to ensuring its success," said Georges Kapiamba of the Association Africaine de Défense des Droits de l'Homme (ASADHO) in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Civil society organizations from 30 African countries - with representation from each of Africa's sub-regions - endorsed the statement urging governments to express their support and willingness to cooperate with the ICC.

"Civil society across Africa has united in its determination not to allow our leaders to forfeit Africa's commitment to justice for victims of atrocities," said Comfort Ero of the International Center for Transitional Justice in South Africa.