AGJA members at the Arusha Symposim, left to right Nigerian human rights lawyer and former President of the West African Bar Association Mr Femi Falana; Botswana Attorney-General Ms Athaliah Molokomme; former Central African Republic Transitional President Madam Catherine Samba-Panza; Tanzania Chief Justice Mohammed Chande Othman; Gambian former Chief Prosecutor for the Rwanda International Crimes Tribunal and Judge of the Appeals Court for the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone, Justice Hassan Bubacar Jallow. Picture:Macharia Gaitho

In Arusha - A group of eminent African jurists have expressed dismay at Burundi’s decision to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The African Group for Justice and Accountability (AGJA) gathered in Arusha, Tanzania, on this week for an international symposium, when news came through that beleaguered Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza had made good on his threat to pull his country out of the ICC.

The group released a statement expressing “profound disappointment” at Nkurunziza’s decision, saying the move was an “obstacle to achieving accountability for crimes committed in Burundi. This decision deprives the victims of human rights violations in the country recourse to justice”.

AJGA luminaries at the meeting included Tanzania’s Chief Justice Mohammed Chande Othman, Botswana’s attorney-general Athaliah Molokomme and former Central African Republic transitional president, Catherine Samba-Panza.

Others who were there include Nigerian human rights lawyer and former president of the West African Bar Association Femi Falana, former chief prosecutor of the United Nations International Criminals Tribunals (ICTR) for Rwanda, Judge Richard Goldstone of South Africa, and Gambian Justice Hassan Bubucar Jallow who was also an ICTR chief prosecutor and judge of the Appeal Court for the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone.

Kenyan lawyer Betty Murungi is also a member of AGJA but was not present in Arusha. 

The group urged Nkurunziza to rescind the anti-ICC decision and re-confirm commitment to human rights for Burundi’s people.

The AGJA also asked other ICC member states and African countries to put pressure on Burundi to retain membership of the “important mechanism for fighting impunity and defending justice and human rights”.

The meeting brought together a large delegation of lawyers, human rights activists, academics and researchers for wide ranging discussions on Africa and international justice.

The problems facing the ICC – in the wake of the collapse of the Kenyan cases against President Uhuru Kenyatta, his deputy William Ruto and four others – featured prominently in the discussions, as did the continuing African threats of mass withdrawal from the court.

Also getting plenty of attention were current conflicts in different parts of Africa, where the ICC or other special international crimes tribunals may be activated.

These included the situations in Burundi and South Sudan. The former, one of the newer members of the East African Community (EAC), has been on the brink of civil war since April last year when Nkurunziza ignored term limits and sought a third term.

Since then, more than 400 people have been killed in unrests and more than 200 000 have fled their homes.

The government first threatened to withdraw after the ICC announced it was investigating the violence and would seek to bring the perpetrators to account as the violence escalated.

South Sudan has witnessed massive violence since earlier this year when fresh violence flared between troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and his deposed deputy, Riek Machar.

Tens of thousands have died and hundreds of thousands have fled the country.

In both Burundi and Sudan, mediation efforts by the EAC, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, the African Union (AU) and the UN have not been fruitful.

The meeting looked at both situations against a background where Kenya has been leading an AU threat of mass withdrawal from the ICC, yet plans to enhance the jurisdiction of the African Court of Human and People’s Rights to hear cases of genocide, war crimes and other international crimes seem to be stillborn.

Only a handful of countries have ratified the instruments that would allow the African Court to sit on such cases. Also, very few have established international crimes divisions within their domestically, yet the rationale offered for quitting the ICC has been the mantra of “African solutions to African problems”.