Africa fights for immunity for government leaders

President of Sudan Omar-al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for genocide and crimes against humanity

By Alex Bell
SW Radio Africa
16 May 2014

Attempts to secure immunity from prosecution for African government leaders has been criticised as a potentially “detrimental” move that would impact on the rule of law and justice on the continent.

African Justice Ministers and Attorney Generals gathered in Ethiopia this week, where they were set to discuss a proposal to absolve sitting African leaders for their part in genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The two day Ethiopia meeting was called to consider a draft protocol to expand the authority of the African Court on Justice and Human Rights to include criminal jurisdiction over these serious crimes. The draft protocol includes the proposed blanket immunity for heads of state.

Jemima Njeri, a senior researcher in the International Crime in Africa program at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), said the proposal “would be a major setback for justice for grave crimes.” She warned that this was a sign of Africa’s leaders “supporting each other,” at the expense of the rule of law.

“It is not right for African heads of state to include these amendments. It is detrimental to democracy,” Njeri told SW Radio Africa.

Human rights and justice groups from 19 African countries have since written to African governments, warning them that the rule of law is being threatened by the proposal.

“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, one of the signatories to the letter.

“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,” Ramabolu added.

Meanwhile, South Africa’s Constitutional Court will on Monday hear the latest appeal against a landmark order for the authorities there to probe crimes against humanity committed in Zimbabwe.

Last year, the Supreme Court of Appeal upheld a court order from 2012 that compelled the prosecuting authorities in South Africa to investigate torture and other crimes perpetrated in Zimbabwe. This was after the police and National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) had appealed the original order handed down by the North Gauteng High Court.

The South African police have then filed another appeal in January this year, arguing that among other issues, an investigation would infringe on the sovereignty of Zimbabwe and damage diplomatic relations.

The case is being led by the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) and the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum (ZEF) and was based on a dossier detailing a politically motivated attack on MDC members in Zimbabwe in 2007. This dossier, which implicates 18 high level ZANU PF members, was handed to the NPA in 2008 but the prosecuting body and the police decided not to take the case further.

ZEF Director Gabriel Shumba told SW Radio Africa that the latest appeal is “without merit,” and the ZEF and SALC “will vigorously oppose the appeal.”

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