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42 human rights defenders call on AU to drop immunity plans for leaders

By Abu-bakarr Sheriff

A group of human rights defenders in Africa and supporters of the International Criminal Court, including the Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law (CARL) Sierra Leone, has called on the African Union (AU) to drop its proposed plans to grant immunity to sitting heads of states and governments from appearing before Africa’s regional court – Africa Court of Justice and Human Right.

In a letter issued in Johannesburg, South Africa yesterday (12 May, 2014), the group averred that the proposal would essentially undermine gains made by those seeking justice for grave crimes committed by states officials.

The letters is published few days before Justice Ministers and Attorney Generals of AU member countries are due to meet in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on 15 and 16 May, 2014, with part of the agenda being to deliberate on a draft protocol to expand the authority of the African Court on Justice and Human Rights to include criminal jurisdiction over genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, which proposal include granting immunity for heads of state and senior government officials from prosecution for such crimes.

“Exempting sitting heads of state and senior government officials from African Court jurisdiction on grave crimes would shield the powerful from the reach of the law,” said Sulemana Braimah, Executive Director of Media Foundation for West Africa. “This is fundamentally at odds with the AU Constitutive Act, which rejects impunity.”

The timing of the draft protocol is particularly significant, in the wake of intense opposition to the International Criminal Court (ICC) by some African leaders, particularly in the face of the ICC’s proceedings against President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto.

“Impunity remains one of the biggest threats to human rights protection in Africa,” said Thuso Ramabolu, human rights officer at Lesotho’s Transformation Resource Centre. “It’s crucial for people responsible for mass atrocities to face justice, irrespective of their official positions. Immunity poses grave alarm and would create an incentive to hold on to power indefinitely.”

The statement further notes that: “International conventions, including the Convention against Torture, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and the Geneva Conventions of 1949 recognize the imperative of accountability for grave crimes irrespective of the title or position of those responsible. The irrelevance of official capacity before international criminal courts has become entrenched in international law since the post-World War II trials before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.”

Also, the group underscored the fact that immunity is not an option with respect to serious crimes in some jurisdictions in Africa.

“Even domestic law in Kenya and South Africa bars immunity for sitting officials before domestic courts on grave crimes,” said Stella Ndirangu, program manager at the Kenyan Section of the International Commission of Jurists. “African governments should not roll back important progress in ensuring perpetrators can be held to account.”

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