Immunity for government leaders will harm the African court

As African governments prepare for an AU meeting this week on the African Court, NGOs urge that immunity for government leaders not be accepted.

Pretoria, South Africa – A proposal to give immunity to sitting government leaders before Africa’s regional court would be a major setback for justice for grave crimes, African organisations from 19 countries and international organisations with a presence in Africa said in a letter to African governments released yesterday.

Justice ministers and attorney generals of African Union (AU) member countries are scheduled to meet in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 15 and 16 May 2014, to consider 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.

A proposal providing immunity for heads of state and senior government officials from prosecution for such crimes is being considered as part of the amended protocol.

‘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 the Media Foundation for West Africa. ‘This is fundamentally at odds with the AU Constitutive Act, which rejects impunity.’

The consideration of the draft protocol comes at a time of intense opposition to the International Criminal Court (ICC) by some African leaders, particularly in the face of the ICC’s proceedings against Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, who were later elected as Kenya’s president and vice president.

‘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.’

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 recognise 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.

Immunity with respect to serious crimes is also barred before some domestic courts 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.’

The following groups endorsed the letter and are among the most active members of an informal network of African nongovernmental organisations and international organisations with a presence in Africa that have been working on Africa and the International Criminal Court:

  1. Amnesty International, Benin
  2. Burundi Coalition on the International Criminal Court, Burundi
  3. Action des Chrétiens Activistes des Droits de l'Homme à Shabunda, Democratic Republic of Congo
  4. Ligue pour la Paix, les Droits de l'Homme et la Justice, Democratic Republic of Congo
  5. Parliamentarians for Global Action, Democratic Republic of Congo
  6. Synergie des ONGs Congolaise pour le Lutte contre les Violences Sexuelles, Democratic Republic of Congo
  7. Synergie des ONGs Congolaises pour les Victimes, Democratic Republic of Congo
  8. Voix des Sans Voix pour les Droits de l'Homme, Democratic Republic of Congo
  9. Women’s Initiative for Gender Justice, Egypt and Uganda
  10. Amnesty International, Ghana
  11. Media Foundation for West Africa, Ghana
  12. La Rencontre Africaine pour la Défense des Droits de l'Homme, Guinea and Senegal
  13. Amnesty International, Kenya
  14. International Commission of Jurists, Kenya
  15. Kenya Human Rights Commission, Kenya 
  16. Kenyans for Peace with Truth and Justice, Kenya 
  17. Transformation Resource Centre, Lesotho
  18. Rights and Rice Foundation, Liberia
  19. Civil Liberties Committee, Malawi
  20. Center for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, Malawi
  21. NamRights, Namibia
  22. Civil Resource and Development Documentation Center, Nigeria
  23. Coalition of Eastern NGOs, Nigeria 
  24. Gender and Constitution Reform Network, Nigeria 
  25. National Coalition on Affirmative Action, Nigeria 
  26. Nigerian Coalition on the International Criminal Court, Nigeria 
  27. Women Advocates' Research and Documentation Center, Nigeria 
  28. West African Bar Association, Nigeria 
  29. Amnesty International, Senegal
  30. TrustAfrica, Senegal 
  31. Amnesty International, Sierra Leone 
  32. Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law, Sierra Leone
  33. Coalition for Justice and Accountability, Sierra Leone
  34. International Crime in Africa Programme, Institute for Security Studies, South Africa
  35. Children’s Education Society, Tanzania
  36. Amnesty International, Togo
  37. Human Rights Network, Uganda
  38. Uganda Coalition on the International Criminal Court, Uganda
  39. Southern African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes, Zambia
  40. Coalition for the International Criminal Court, with offices in Benin and the Democratic Republic of the Congo
  41. International Federation for Human Rights, with offices in Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Kenya, and Mali
  42. Human Rights Watch, with offices in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, and South Africa

To read the letter, visit:

For more on civil society’s role on international criminal justice in Africa see:

For more information, please contact:

  • In Pretoria, for the International Crime in Africa Programme, Institute for Security Studies, Jemima Njeri (English): +27-832-346-566; or +27-123-469-500; or [email protected]
  • In Abuja, for LEDAP-Legal Defence & Assistance Project, Chino Edmund Obiagwu (English): +234-0703-000-0014; or +234-012-802-009; or +234-0803-691-3264 (mobile); or [email protected] 
  • In Accra, for Media Foundation for West Africa, Sulemana Braimah (English): +233-302-242-470; or +233-244-520-243; or [email protected] 
  • In Addis, for the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, Steve Lamony (English): +251-093-997-5906; or [email protected] 
  • In Contonou, for Amnesty International-Benin, Clement Capo-chichi (French) +229-644-20-260 (mobile); or [email protected] 
  • In Dakar, for Amnesty International, Senegal, Seydi Gassama (French): +221-776-368-959; or[email protected] 
  • In Freetown, for Center for Accountability and Rule of Law in Sierra Leone, Ibrahim Tommy (English): +232-76-365-499; or [email protected] 
  • In Johannesburg, for Human Rights Watch, Tiseke Kasambala (English): +27-110-622-852; or +27-792-205-254; or [email protected] 
  • In Nairobi, for Kenya section of the International Commission of Jurists, Stella Ndirangu (English): +254-20-208-4836/8; or [email protected] 
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