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(Johannesburg) – A proposal to give immunity to sitting government leaders before Africa’s regional court would be a major setback for justice for grave crimes, African organizations from 19 countries and international organizations with a presence in Africa said in a letter to African governments released today.

Justice ministers and attorney generals of African Union (AU) member countries are scheduled to meet in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on May 15 and 16, 2014, to consider a draft protocol to expand the authority of the African Court on Justice and Human Rights to include criminal jurisdiction over genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. A proposal providing immunity for heads of state and senior government officials from prosecution for such crimes is being considered as part of the amended protocol.

“Exempting sitting heads of state and senior government officials from African Court jurisdiction on grave crimes would shield the powerful from the reach of the law,” said Sulemana Braimah, executive director of the Media Foundation for West Africa. “This is fundamentally at odds with the AU Constitutive Act, which rejects impunity.”

The consideration of the draft protocol comes at a time of intense opposition to the International Criminal Court (ICC) by some African leaders, particularly in the face of the ICC’s proceedings against Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, who were later elected as Kenya’s president and vice president.

“Impunity remains one of the biggest threats to human rights protection in Africa,” said Thuso Ramabolu, human rights officer at Lesotho’s Transformation Resource Centre. “It’s crucial for people responsible for mass atrocities to face justice, irrespective of their official positions. Immunity poses grave alarm and would create an incentive to hold on to power indefinitely.”

International conventions, including the Convention against Torture, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and the Geneva Conventions of 1949 recognize the imperative of accountability for grave crimes irrespective of the title or position of those responsible. The irrelevance of official capacity before international criminal courts has become entrenched in international law since the post-World War II trials before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.

Immunity with respect to serious crimes is also barred before some domestic courts in Africa.

“Even domestic law in Kenya and South Africa bars immunity for sitting officials before domestic courts on grave crimes,” said Stella Ndirangu, program manager at the Kenyan Section of the International Commission of Jurists. “African governments should not roll back important progress in ensuring perpetrators can be held to account.”

The following groups endorsed the letter and are among the most active members of an informal network of African nongovernmental organizations and international organizations with a presence in Africa that have been working on Africa and the International Criminal Court:

Amnesty International, Benin
Burundi Coalition on the International Criminal Court, Burundi
Action des Chrétiens Activistes des Droits de l'Homme à Shabunda, Democratic Republic of Congo
Ligue pour la Paix, les Droits de l'Homme et la Justice, Democratic Republic of Congo
Parliamentarians for Global Action, Democratic Republic of Congo
Synergie des ONGs Congolaise pour le Lutte contre les Violences Sexuelles, Democratic Republic of Congo
Synergie des ONGs Congolaises pour les Victimes, Democratic Republic of Congo
Voix des Sans Voix pour les Droits de l'Homme, Democratic Republic of Congo
Women’s Initiative for Gender Justice, Egypt and Uganda
Amnesty International, Ghana
Media Foundation for West Africa, Ghana
La Rencontre Africaine pour la Défense des Droits de l'Homme, Guinea and Senegal
Amnesty International, Kenya
International Commission of Jurists, Kenya
Kenya Human Rights Commission, Kenya
Kenyans for Peace with Truth and Justice, KenyaTransformation Resource Centre, Lesotho
Rights and Rice Foundation, Liberia
Civil Liberties Committee, Malawi
Center for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, Malawi
NamRights, Namibia
Civil Resource and Development Documentation Center, Nigeria
Coalition of Eastern NGOs, Nigeria
Gender and Constitution Reform Network, Nigeria
National Coalition on Affirmative Action, Nigeria
Nigerian Coalition on the International Criminal Court, Nigeria
Women Advocates' Research and Documentation Center, Nigeria
West African Bar Association, Nigeria
Amnesty International, Senegal
TrustAfrica, Senegal
Amnesty International, Sierra Leone
Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law, Sierra Leone
Coalition for Justice and Accountability, Sierra Leone
International Crime in Africa Programme, Institute for Security Studies, South Africa
Children’s Education Society, Tanzania
Amnesty International, Togo
Human Rights Network, Uganda
Uganda Coalition on the International Criminal Court, Uganda
Southern African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes, Zambia
Coalition for the International Criminal Court, with offices in Benin and the Democratic Republic of the Congo
International Federation for Human Rights, with offices in Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Kenya, and Mali
Human Rights Watch, with offices in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, and South Africa

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