On Friday, Burundi officially withdrew from the International Criminal Court (ICC), an ICC spokesperson has confirmed. Last October, Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza signed a decree to withdraw the country from the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) structure and jurisdiction. That withdrawal takes effect today. The small east African nation is the first country to ever withdraw from the court, which was established in 1998 to try high-level war crimes and other crimes against humanity, such as genocide.
2015 Political Violence Triggers ICC Investigation into Nkurunziza’s Administration
President Nkurunziza’s decision comes amidst increased scrutiny of his administration from the court following a period of political violence in Burundi. The violence began in April 2015, after Nkurunziza announced his decision to run for a third presidential term. His announcement triggered a failed military coup, widespread protests, and a fierce and violent crackdown on the opposition that has left more than 430 people dead. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, more than 300,000 Burundians have fled the country since the protests began. Most have sought refuge in neighboring Tanzania and Rwanda.
In April 2016, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, announced that she was launching a preliminary investigation into the situation in Burundi. “My Office has reviewed a number of communications and reports detailing acts of killing, imprisonment, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence, as well as cases of enforced disappearances,” Bensouda stated. “All these acts appear to fall within the jurisdiction of the ICC.”
Will Other States Follow Suit?
Burundi is accusing the ICC of being biased against African states. This allegation is not novel; in February 2017, the African Union made headlines by passing a non-binding resolution calling for the withdrawal of its member states from the ICC. The resolution cited the “systemic disadvantage” that African nations face before the court as grounds for the withdrawal. To date, four out of ten of the court’s preliminary examinations and nine out of ten of the cases that advanced to the full investigation stage have involved African states. In addition, all of the individuals brought to trial before the ICC have been African. Bensouda has previously pointed out, however, that in six of the nine Africa-based cases under full investigation, the court intervened at the request of the country involved.
The African Union’s resolution, however, proved unsuccessful. Of the 55 member states, only Burundi, South Africa, and Gambia announced an intention to withdraw from the ICC, and Sudan and Gambia later retracted their pledges.
It remains to be seen whether Burundi’s withdrawal will inspire other African states under international scrutiny to do the same. The African continent’s attitude towards the ICC is by no means monolithic – several African countries, among them Nigeria, Senegal, and Botswana, either rejected the African Union’s “collective withdrawal” resolution outright or later expressed regret at their fellow member states’ decisions to withdraw.
Nonetheless, the perception held by many that the ICC disproportionately targets Africans and undermines African states’ sovereignty undercuts the court’s legitimacy. As an international body, the court lacks an enforcement mechanism; instead, it relies on its member states to execute warrants of arrest. If African states perceive bias against them in the court’s investigations, they will be less likely to fulfill their “duty to cooperate” per the Rome Statute. In short, the ICC has an image problem – and that problem in turn impairs the international court’s ability to dispense justice.