Call for African States to Reject Immunity for Serious Crimes

We, the undersigned African civil society organisations and international organisations with a presence in Africa working on human rights and criminal justice, join together to express our deep dismay and opposition to the recent adoption by African Union (AU) member heads of states, at the 23rd AU summit, of an amendment to the Statute of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights that would preclude the African Court from trying sitting heads of state and government, as well as certain other senior state officials, for serious crimes committed in violation of international law.

The adopted Protocol on Amendments to the Protocol on the Statute of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights is the first legal instrument to extend a regional court’s authority to criminal jurisdiction over genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The protocol also contains eleven additional crimes and notably has an independent defense office. The expanded role poses significant challenges to the African Court and we stress the importance of providing it with adequate resources to ensure the effective implementation of all mandates.

We are nevertheless deeply dismayed that Article 46A bis of the amendments provides immunity to sitting heads of state and government, and certain other senior state officials from trial for serious crimes. It states: “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.

The immunity provision is a regrettable departure from the spirit and letter of the AU’s Constitutive Act, which promotes respect for human rights and the rejection of impunity under article 4 of the act.

Victims cannot be protected if those at the highest levels of power are above the law. Immunity indirectly legitimizes the chronic disease of impunity, as it takes away the prospect of securing accountability before the African Court for persons who may be responsible for serious crimes. Victims cannot realize meaningful justice for violations suffered if those who may be responsible for grave crimes enjoy exemption from the effect and force of the law.

Civil society organisations oppose granting immunity to any person in relation to serious crimes committed in violation of international law. The statutes of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the Extraordinary African Chambers within the courts of Senegal, and other international and internationalized courts provide that official position of any accused person shall not relieve them of criminal responsibility.

We recall that African governments played an active role in the establishment of the ICC to help ensure justice for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and African states were among the founding ratifiers of the ICC’s Rome Statute. The majority of African Union members are now state parties to the ICC. In ascribing to the letter and the spirit of the Rome Statute, these states have signaled their dedication to defend the rights of victims, to reject exemptions for accused based on their official position, and to ensure that the perpetrators of the most serious crimes known to humankind, whoever they might be, are brought to justice.

Other 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, all recognize the imperative of accountability for individuals, including state officials, who have committed serious crimes and do not provide immunity for individuals in relation to these crimes. Article IV of the Genocide Convention expressly states that individuals who have committed genocide “shall be punished whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals.

We welcome that some African states like Benin, Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and South Africa exclude immunity for sitting officials with respect to serious crimes consistent with their national laws.

Granting immunity to African heads of states and government, and certain senior government officials before the African Court in some circumstances risks giving an open license for those in these positions to perpetrate crimes. It further risks encouraging those accused of the crimes to cling to their positions in order to avoid facing the law, thereby entrenching dictatorships.

The immunity provision of the adopted protocol thus goes against the very essence of promoting human rights, peace and stability, and is a setback to advances made towards democracy and the rule of law in Africa. African leaders should ultimately be assessed on the basis of their efforts to enhance the values of respect for human rights and justice for the victims of serious crimes - not by efforts at nurturing the culture of impunity at the expense of the rights of their citizens.

The recent decision to allow immunity for serious crimes under international law on the basis of official capacity before the regional court thus is retrogressive and undesirable. Instead of retreating from important achievements to limit impunity, advance the rule of law, and promote respect for human rights, we call upon African governments to remain steadfast in supporting justice for victims of the worst crimes.

We, the undersigned civil society organisations, appeal to African states to reaffirm their commitments in international and regional instruments to support human rights, accountability and access to justice by rejecting immunity for serious crimes under international law.

This text was drafted by Malawi’s Center for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, and benefitted from input from several African civil society organisations and international organisations with a presence in Africa.

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