From 7 – 15 June 2015, African leaders gathered for the 25th African Union (AU) Summit, under the theme, “Year of Women Empowerment and Development towards Africa’s Agenda 2063.” One of those in attendance was the President of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, a man wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to face charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in relation to the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region, where an estimated 300 000 people were killed and more than two million displaced. His presence in South Africa provided the South African government with an opportune moment to arrest al-Bashir, given that the country is party to the Rome Statute which formed the International Criminal Court. By being a State party to the Rome Statute, a country is legally obligated to co-operate with the Court when it requires, such as in arresting and transferring indicted persons to the ICC.
South Africa elected to ignore this obligation when al-Bashir was in the country for the AU Summit. Civil society and human rights organisations took on the role of government to condemn his presence and a human rights group, the Southern African Litigation Centre, subsequently went to court to have al-Bashir arrested so that he could be transferred to the ICC – and won.
The South African government’s response was to ignore the North Gauteng High Court ruling that South Africa had a duty to hand al-Bashir over to the ICC, and arranged to have him snuck out of the country. In a weak defence of its actions, the South African government argued that it had granted all leaders immunity to attend the meeting.
This follows in the steps of the Malawian government, also a party to the Rome Statute of the ICC, which in 2011 said it was not their business to arrest al-Bashir who was attending a heads of state summit of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA). Other than Malawi, several African states – Kenya, Chad and Djibouti – have allowed al-Bashir to enter their countries, despite them also being parties to the ICC statute.
What greatly concerns us as the MenEngage Alliance in Africa is the utter disregard for the serious crimes that the ICC has indicted President al-Bashir with, and ironically, given the summit theme, the devastating impact his presidency has had on the lives of women and girls in particular. Shockingly, the AU’s own commission reported a number of these atrocities and recommended that those in leadership be held accountable, and yet the prime suspect was allowed to attend the AU summit, as if nothing had happened.
If, as many African leaders have stated, the ICC is a Western structure designed to unfairly target African presidents, what is the AU’s African mechanism for accountability and justice? What purpose can the AU possibly serve if it cannot even follow through on its own recommendations?
It is evident that the largely “boys’ club” of African leaders chose to close rank and protect one of their own, lest they themselves face prosecution from the ICC for their own human rights violations.
For how long will we accept these levels of impunity? Are African leaders truly serious about women empowerment, and ending violence against women and girls, particularly in situations of conflict?
As civil society, we feel compelled to call for an end to this impunity. How can we expect ordinary citizens to respect the rule of law, and promote non-violence, when our leaders escape all manner of accountability, while turning a blind eye to the deaths and rape of thousands? If we truly have women’s empowerment at the centre of the African agenda, then ensuring access to justice is an important step and one which clearly demonstrates that the lives of women and girls do indeed matter, as do the lives of all Africans.
FOR MEDIA ENQUIRIES, CONTACT:
Senior Programmes Specialist, Sonke Gender Justice & chair, MenEngage Africa
Júlio Langa, National Coordinator, HOPEM Network & co-Chair, MenEngage Africa