ADDIS ABABA - African nations meet today (Friday) to debate a possible withdrawal from the International Criminal Court over claims it targets Africa, but that sentiment is being challenged by rights groups across the continent.
The 54-member African Union has accused The Hague-based ICC of singling out Africans for prosecution and has specifically demanded that the court drop the proceedings against Kenya's leadership.
Member states of the court, which was founded primarily to try genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, are expected to discuss a possible united pull-out from the ICC.
The AU summit has already provoked strong reactions from both sides of the debate.
Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan this week said Africa would be wearing a "badge of shame" if its leaders voted to leave the world's first permanent war crimes court.
A group of 130 African organisations have also issued a public letter expressing their steadfast support for the tribunal.
"We believe any withdrawal from the ICC would send the wrong signal about Africa's commitment to protect and promote human rights and reject impunity," read the letter, which has been hailed by Human Rights Watch.
The special summit starts with ministerial meetings on Friday before heads of state join the debate at the AU's Addis Ababa headquarters on Saturday.
It takes place amid growing hostility to the ICC trials of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto, on charges of crimes against humanity in the post-election violence in 2007-2008 that left over a thousand people dead.
Several countries, including Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia, have publicly supported Kenya's stance against the ICC and the request to transfer the trials to Africa.
But despite criticism from many, a united withdrawal from the court by member states appears unlikely.
"It is difficult to say that the whole membership of Africans will pull-out, but it is possible that some countries will because they are tired of the situation," Rwanda's ambassador to the AU, Joseph Nsegimana, told AFP.
He claimed the ICC bias against Africa was clear, adding that the court had only shown itself as a mechanism to target African suspects.
"The bias exists because it appears that the ICC is becoming more and more a political tool rather than a justice court," he said.
ICC accused of 'hunting Africans'
All of the court's current eight cases are against Africans, prompting the AU to accuse the ICC of "hunting" Africans, even though four of those cases were referred to the court by the countries themselves.
But several African nations, including Botswana, South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana, have expressed support for the ICC in the past, and are seen as unlikely to withdraw now.
"I do not expect much out of the meeting other than a bit of moral support and expressions of sympathy for the Kenyan government's position," Peter J. Pham, director for the Africa Centre at the Atlantic Council, told AFP.
But Pham said the ICC's refusal to transfer or defer the Kenyan cases, particularly after Islamist gunmen massacred at least 67 people in a Nairobi shopping mall last month, has demonstrated the "apparent tone-deafness of the ICC to public perception" in Africa.
"By refusing even that reasonable accommodation, the court confirms the worst fears of its critics and does little to reassure ordinary Africans, thus further undermining its political legitimacy," Pham added.
Last month, Kenyan lawmakers backed a motion to withdraw from the ICC. If successful, Kenya would be the first country to pull out of the court.
While the AU is not mandated to ask countries to withdraw from the treaty that established the ICC, diplomats said Kenya's lobbying campaign urging countries to pull out could gain some success
'A very unwise decision'
Analysts warn a widespread pull-out from the ICC is a dangerous move for many African countries that lack the judicial capacity, political will or funding to try suspected criminals on their own soil.
"The impact of these developments for international criminal justice, and especially the victims of grave crimes in Africa, are dire," South Africa's Institute for Security Studies warned.
Among the 122 countries that are party to the Rome Statute, the ICC's binding treaty, 34 are African -- the largest regional representation within the court.
"It would undermine the whole project, it would be a very unwise decision," said Misa Zgonec, an international law fellow at Britain's Chatham House.
"If the states have a commitment to diffuse the impunity gap, then they should definitely stick with the International Criminal Court."