African leaders have granted themselves and their allies immunity from prosecution for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide at the Union’s Court, as they voted in support of the amendment at the African Union Summit.
Incumbent leaders and senior government officials suspected of committing genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity will not be charged or tried by the Union’s Court of Justice and Human Rights, created by the 54-nation African Union (AU) six years ago.
The vote took place on Friday in Equatorial Guinea, but news of the outcome of the summit appeared only this week, according to Amnesty International. It has been reported that journalists were expelled from last week’s voting.
Among a number of legal instruments agreed at the meeting was the “Protocol on Amendments to the Protocol on the Statute of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights.”
The document, objected to by forty-two African and international civil society and rights groups, reads that “No charges shall be commenced or continued before the Court against any serving African Union Head of State or Government, or anybody acting or entitled to act in such capacity, or other senior state officials based on their functions, during their tenure of office,” as cited by Amnesty International.
The amendment, however, vaguely identified “senior officials.”
The African leaders’ decision was criticized by Amnesty, which said the move was a step “backwards in the fight against impunity and a betrayal of the victims who suffered serious human rights abuses.”
“At a time when the African continent is struggling to ensure there is accountability for serious human rights violations and abuses, it is impossible to justify this decision which undermines the integrity of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights, even before it becomes operational,” said the Amnesty International’s Africa Director for Research and Advocacy, Netsanet Belay.
Regardless of the AU's decision, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague will keep the right to investigate crimes against humanity committed by serving African heads of state and governments.
“This decision does not fit with the AU's own Constitutive Act and the other international human rights obligations and commitments of its member states,” said Netsanet Belay. “Those responsible for serious human rights violations must face justice, irrespective of their official positions and the adoption of this amendment is a backward step in the long battle for accountability and human rights in Africa.”
Last year some of the African Union governments campaigned against the Hague-based court, accusing the ICC of unfairly singling out African leaders.
Earlier this year the African Union urged its members to “speak with one voice” to prevent criminal proceedings at the ICC against sitting presidents. Currently two sitting African presidents and one ousted president are facing charges at the International Criminal Court.