The 26th Ordinary Session of the African Union Assembly came to a conclusion last week with few resolutions and many questions left unanswered on the most pressing issues facing the continent.
The Summit aptly declared 2016 the “African Year of Human Rights with Particular Focus on the Rights of Women”. Even though progress is still required, celebrating human rights in the course of the year on the continent will be more about creating opportunities to consolidate on the gains made in this area over the years. Granting particular attention to specific integral areas like the rights of women will go a long way in deepening the human rights culture on the continent and is therefore a commendable theme. As much as headlines go however, this was as much as consensus and conclusiveness went at the end of the Summit.
Dialogue Over Intervention in Burundi
Prior to the Summit, there was a lot of expectation on what the decision of the AU would be on the situation in Burundi. This was heightened by Burundi’s forthright dismissal of plans by the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) to deploy Peacekeeping troops to the country which was announced in December. The slow but steady deterioration of the situation in Burundi is one that has lingered and this Summit provided the AU an opportunity to take a decisive step towards ending the crisis before it plunges the country into another civil war.
But this was not the case. The Summit ended with AU leaders effectively shelving the planned deployment of peacekeeping troops to the country, electing instead to send a delegation to try and negotiate peace. This is perhaps in the hope that the AU would succeed were regional leaders in East Africa have failed. Nkurunziza’s stance so far since the issue of his intention to run for a third term ignited protests in the country, makes it difficult to be hopeful on the prospects of negotiated peace in Burundi, without some form of external pressure; one that the AU appears quite uncertain of applying at the moment.
Consensus in Call for Withdrawal from ICC
The most interesting headline following the conclusion of the Summit was that of the consideration of a mass withdrawal by African countries from the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma announced that his country was reviewing its participation in the Rome State, whilst his Kenyan counterpart Uhuru Kenyatta claimed that he has been “distracted from the duty to serve” by the constant harassment of his government by the ICC. But the debate on the perceived persecution of African countries by the ICC is a long-standing one and looking at the facts, there are justifiable grounds for African leaders to be concerned. Since its establishment in 2002, about 23 cases across nine countries have been brought before the ICC, with eight of those being African countries, including Sudan and Libya who are non-member states. In the past, leaders like Paul Kagame of Rwanda have referred to the ICC as a fraudulent institution and Jean Ping, a former Chairman of the African Union Commission was quoted as having questioned why countries like Argentina, Myanmar and even Iraq have not had leaders brought before the ICC.
It would appear that the spotting resentment towards the ICC by African leaders is moving towards a consensus that will have quite revealing ramifications for the work of the ICC considering Africa with 34 states is the continent with the highest number of signatories. This situation must however be interpreted with caution. Apart from Kenya which voted to withdraw from the ICC in 2013 and South Africa that has commenced the process of withdrawing shortly after the Summit last week, most countries who are signatories to the Rome Statute are yet to take any serious step towards withdrawal and even when they do, the process would take a couple of years to conclude. It also remains to be seen how many leaders will be willing and able to maintain their stand when external forces start exerting pressure.
Are there any Positives?
Many persons including the exiled leader of the opposition FRODEBU party in Burundi Jean Minani expressed disappointment at the decision of the AU not to send peacekeeping troops to Burundi at the end of the summit. He claimed that the action of the AU amounted to turning their backs on the people of Burundi whilst the government of President Pierre Nkurunziza continues with the systemic persecution of the opposition in the country.
However, the decision of the AU to first explore dialogue as a means of ending the crisis is one that must be commended, albeit to an extent. Considering the history of disastrous military interventions in countries in various parts of the world at different times, it does make some sense for the AU to show caution in situations like this. Interventions should indeed be employed only as a last resort. The recent successful efforts by West African leaders to negotiate a peaceful transition in Burkina Faso provide reasons to be optimistic about the decision of the AU to explore dialogue as a solution to the situation in Burundi. Hopefully the high-level delegation of leaders from Mauritania, South Africa, Senegal, Gabon and Ethiopia can prevail on Nkurunziza’s government to respect the sovereignty of his people in the same way as the AU has shown respect for the sovereignty of Burundi.
In the following months and years, it will become more apparent if African countries are really serious about withdrawing from the ICC. Whether or not they do, the fact that the issue is now on the front burner of discourses emerging from an AU summit must be considered a positive development overall. But the rhetoric and the discourse is only a start; one that is long overdue.
So often leaders, activists and academics alike have cried foul about the unfairness, insensitivity and inappropriateness of western-driven solutions for problems facing African countries, without proffering viable alternatives. With respect to the ICC and the prosecution of leaders and individuals who commit war crimes and crimes against humanity, reference has often being made to efforts to establish an African Court of Justice and Human and Peoples’ Rights as an alternative to the ICC. But operationalising this court is still a distant possibility and the current legal framework for its establishment has some drawbacks that mean it might not provide a comprehensive lasting alternative to the ICC.
The 26th AU Summit has indeed raised many questions, rather than providing many answers. Afrocentrics can however celebrate the fact that some important questions are now being posed, the answers to which will have important ramifications for the pride and people of the continent.