On October 12, 2013, the African Union (AU) will convene in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to discuss withdrawing from the International Criminal Court (ICC). Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) – in conjunction with various other NGOs from around the world – is participating in the upcoming Thunderclap campaign encouraging the AU to #staywiththeICC. This campaign mirrors the demands of 130 civil society groups in Africa that recently urged AU members not to withdraw from the Court. PHR urges the AU to maintain their relationship with the ICC in order to promote justice, support regional peace and security, and enhance accountability. The ICC is an invaluable resource that African leaders should continue to use to protect against large-scale acts of violence against civilians.
The ICC is critical to the international human rights process, as it is the only permanent venue designed to hold perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide accountable. As the court of last-resort, the ICC has jurisdiction only where local judicial systems are unwilling or unable to appropriately hold perpetrators accountable at the national level. Of the eight situations currently before the ICC, four of them were referred to the Court by the countries themselves, seeking international assistance in holding perpetrators of mass atrocities accountable. African nations have looked to the Court for assistance when no other viable avenues to criminal accountability exist.
Current situations before the Court include some of the most violent and devastating crimes in history. In response to the mass atrocities committed in Darfur, the Court indicted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is the first sitting head of state to have been indicted by the ICC. Al-Bashir has been indicted for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide – on charges that include rape, torture, and murder. PHR researched the effects of the mass crimes authorized by al-Bashir and others, revealing widespread reverberations beyond the initial acts of violence. Those who are displaced by violence face compounded forms of violence, including vulnerability to rape. Mass atrocities not only destroy individuals, but entire communities. For now, the ICC is the only court that aims to hold leaders like al-Bashir accountable for abhorrent acts of violence.
The president of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, and his vice president, William Ruto, currently face charges of crimes against humanity for allegedly planning and organizing violence in the aftermath of the 2007 election. Between December 2007 and February 2008, some 900 people were killed during violent post-election riots, while more than 300,000 others were displaced.
PHR is working to strengthen local prosecutions for crimes of sexual violence in Kenya, but accountability must include those at the top echelons of political power in order to truly stem the scourge of rape.
The work of PHR and others who strive to end sexual violence in conflict zones is enormously reliant on the ICC, as it is often the best mechanism available to address rape and sexual violence as weapons of war. For victims, the ICC serves as a tool to increase accountability and a venue to safely confront attackers, share the truth about their experiences, and begin the personal and communal healing processes.
Sexual violence affects entire communities, and impunity for perpetrators of sexual violence can stymie community development and reconciliation, even after conflict subsides. PHR strives to promote improved local legal systems that can manage the enormous weight of these cases, but until that becomes possible, the ICC is the only resource for many victims of sexual violence in conflict. Withdrawing from the ICC would imply that the AU supports perpetrators of sexual violence and other kinds of egregious crimes, placing itself in opposition to those victims of violence that the ICC seeks to protect.
PHR stands with the tens of thousands of silent victims who have lost their lives in the cases before the Court and the survivors who depend on the Court as the locus of last resort for justice in the aftermath of mass crimes committed against them and their communities. PHR urges the AU leadership to continue using the ICC as a tool to ensure accountability and protect their citizens from war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.