The news that three African states—Burundi, South Africa and now The Gambia—will quit the International Criminal Court marks a setback in the long struggle against impunity for grave crimes. Although the politics are specific to each country, the common thread underlying each of the three departures is cynical self-interest.
A number of Burundi’s current leaders no doubt fear that the Court, currently conducting a preliminary inquiry, may charge them with crimes against humanity for political violence which has taken the lives of hundreds of civilians and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. Indeed, Burundi’s notice of ICC withdrawal immediately followed its suspension of the activities of the UN human rights office to protest a UN report implicating the country’s security forces in massive rights violations.
The Gambia’s president, Yahya Jammeh, who came to power 22 years ago in a military coup and once infamously threatened human rights defenders with death, has been spouting further incendiary rhetoric in the run-up to elections this December. His Minister of Information’s characterization of the ICC as “an International Caucasian Court for the persecution and humiliation of people of color, especially Africans”, seems designed to employ anti-ICC rhetoric to hide the facts of the regime’s ugly record.