Gambia has joined Burundi and South Africa in leaving the International Criminal Court (ICC). Representatives from Gambia claim the court is institutionally biased against Africans while supporters of the court claim that by leaving, all three countries are attempting to cover up crimes by their respective governments.
The court, created in 1998 by a multilateral treaty involving 124 countries, has international jurisdiction for crimes such as genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. It steps in when nations refuse to address alleged crimes against their citizens.
Gambia’s withdrawal comes amid mounting complaints from African nations that the court has ignored Western countries and focused almost exclusively on African nations. “This action is warranted by the fact that the ICC, despite being called the International Criminal Court, is, in fact, an International Caucasian Court for the persecution and humiliation of people of color, especially Africans,” Gambia’s Information Minister Sheriff Bojang stated. Of the court’s ten investigations, only one has focused on a non-African nation and all 39 arrest warrants issued by the court have been for Africans.
Critics of the withdrawing nations claim they are attempting to cover up wrongdoing by their current leaders. In Gambia, there has been a violent state crackdown on protests against the country’s longtime leader Yahya Jammeh. During Jammeh’s 20-year presidency there have been many reports of security forces using violent tactics against the public, including torture, arson, forced displacement, and the use of live ammunition on crowds. Protestors are asking for the return to democracy that Jammeh promised when he first took power.
Critics also worry that the departures will weaken the court. Daniel Bekele, Africa Director at Human Rights Watch says, “the (court) remains the only path to justice for many victims of the gravest crimes when national courts are unable or unwilling to try these cases. African countries should distance themselves from [the] withdrawal, and reaffirm their commitment to accountability for atrocities in Africa.”
However, even people convinced of the court’s mission admit that the focus on Africa is troubling and puts its legitimacy at stake. “When it comes to demonstrating the legitimacy of a new and powerful international legal entity, a basic requirement is not only to be balanced but also to appear so,” said Harvard professor Noah Feldman of the court’s focus on African cases.