Then-Kenyan Deputy PM and finance minister Uhuru Kenyatta attends a hearing at the ICC on August 8, 2011. PHOTO/AFP
ADDIS ABABA - The International Criminal Court was under fire Friday over its "unfair" and "totally unacceptable" treatment of Africa, with African Union ministers calling for cases against Kenyan and Sudanese leaders to be deferred.
The two-day meeting comes amid mounting tensions between The Hague-based ICC and Kenya, whose president and vice-president have been charged with crimes against humanity for allegedly masterminding a vicious campaign of ethnic violence after disputed 2007 elections.
Several nations in the 54-member AU, whose rotating presidency is currently held by Ethiopia, have accused the ICC of singling out Africans for prosecution, and have demanded that the court drop the proceedings against Kenya's leadership.
"The manner in which the Court has been operating, particularly its unfair treatment of Africa and Africans, leaves much to be desired," Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told ministers and delegates at the opening of the two-day meeting.
"The court has transformed itself into a political instrument," he said of the ICC, the world's first permanent court to try genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
After the first day of talks broke up, the Ethiopian foreign minister said that AU ministers had agreed to urge the UN to suspend the ICC cases pending against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, his deputy William Ruto and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.
The African Union (AU) agrees that "sitting heads of state and government should not be prosecuted while in office," he said.
The African foreign ministers' resolution will be put to the heads of state on Saturday.
Under Article 16 of the international court's founding Rome Statute treaty, the UN Security Council can call on the ICC to suspend any case for a year at a time.
African countries account for 34 of the 122 parties to have ratified the treaty, which took effect on July 1, 2002. A mass pull-out from the court -- as some countries have demanded -- could seriously damage the institution.
Sudan's Foreign Minister Ali Karti told AFP that "African countries have their own mechanisms of justice and they prove to be good, better than the European ones".
The bloc, however, appears divided on the issue -- with countries like Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia and Rwanda taking a tough line, but other nations seemingly more reluctant to get embroiled in a diplomatic confrontation with some prominent African figures lobbying hard against a pull-out.
South African anti-apartheid icon and Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu fired off a sharply-worded attack that compared ICC opponents to Nazis seeking to evade justice, and argued the number of African cases was merely a reflection on the dismal human rights record of many of the continent's governments.
"Those leaders seeking to skirt the court are effectively looking for a licence to kill, maim and oppress their own people without consequence," he wrote in an op-ed carried by several newspapers.
"They simply vilify the institution... as Hermann Goering and his fellow Nazi defendants vilified the Nuremberg tribunals following World War II," he wrote.
Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan has also said a pull-out would leave Africa wearing a "badge of shame".
Kenyan vice president William Ruto at the ICC on September 2013. PHOTO/AFP
No pull-out, but strong message
Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed meanwhile sought to distance herself from the perception that her government was lobbying for a mass withdrawal.
"That is not our intention," she told reporters. "Are we concerned about some of the things that are happening in the court? Yes we are, but we never said we would move out."
All of the ICC's current eight cases are against Africans, giving rise to a sentiment that the court is "hunting" Africans -- even if four of those cases, including those involving Kenya, were referred to the court by the countries themselves.
According to one diplomat, there was a sentiment the ICC -- which is an independent international organisation, and is not part of the United Nations system -- was turning a blind eye to other parts of the world where "massive crimes against humanity had been committed".
The ICC has charged Kenyan President Kenyatta and Vice-President Ruto, as well as former radio boss Joshua Arap Sang, with crimes against humanity linked to post-election violence in 2007-2008 that left at least 1,100 dead and more than 600,000 homeless.
The trial of Ruto and Sang has already begun, and Kenyatta is due in court on November 12.
The accused have so far pledged to cooperate with the court, but tensions have been mounting amid accusations of witness intimidation in Kenya and counter-complaints against the ICC that it is inflexible and hampering the running of the country.
Following last month's attack on Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall, the government also demanded that Kenyatta be allowed to appear by video-link so he can deal with national security issues. On Thursday his lawyers filed a request to the ICC for a halt in proceedings, alleging abuse of process by the court.
Should the accused fail to turn up for any of the hearings they could trigger arrest warrants, with Kenya then running the risk of diplomatic isolation.