Burundi Becomes The First Country To Withdraw From The International Criminal Court Officially


On Friday, 27th October, the International Criminal Court (ICC) spokesman, Fadi el Abdallah, confirmed that the small Eastern African nation of Burundi has pulled out from the court. This comes a year after the country informed the United Nations about their intention to withdraw.

Current case against Burundi

According to ICC spokesman, the withdrawal from the ICC court does not affect the preliminary examination being conducted due to Article 127. After protesters took to the streets in reaction to President Pierre Nkurunziza deciding to run for a third term in 2015, which he won, the ICC decided to investigate to find out whether any crimes against humanity and sexual violence had been or were still being committed by Burundian troops. The basis of the investigation, which began in April 2016, is featured in a UN commission of inquiry report that relied on the interviews of more than 500 witnesses. The witnesses claimed that the national intelligence services, police force, military officials, and members of the youth league of the ruling party, Imbonerakure, are the main perpetrators of the violence.

Comments from institutions

Upon the announcement about the withdrawal from the ICC, the Associate Director of International Justice department of Human Rights Watch, Param-Preet Singh, claimed “Burundi’s official withdrawal from the International Criminal Court is the latest example of the government’s deplorable efforts to shield those responsible for grave human rights violations from any kind of accountability. We urge the ICC to take a progressive approach in interpreting its jurisdiction so that victims maintain a viable path to justice.”

The head of Amnesty International, Justice Matt Cannock, uttered similar sentiments to Mrs Signh, stating that “The Burundian government has made a cynical attempt to evade justice by taking the unprecedented step of withdrawing from the ICC. But perpetrators, including members of the security forces, cannot so easily shirk their alleged responsibility for crimes under international law committed since 2015.”

ICC and African Countries

African countries, whom 34 of them are signatories of the Rome Statute, have frequently argued that the ICC targets African leaders more frequently compared to other continents. To their credit, 8 out of 9 cases under investigation or prosecution at the ICC involve Africans. The court is investigating cases in the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mali, Sudan, Kenya, Libya, Ivory Coast and Uganda. Interestingly, three out of the eight cases were referred to the court by African countries. CAR, DRC, and Uganda have made referrals to the ICC.

The most well-known case at the ICC against an African leader is against Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir who is accused of crimes committed in Darfur between 2003 and 2008 where over 300,000 people had been killed and more than 2 million displaced.  The current President and Deputy President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, were indicted but cases were dropped due to lack of evidence, after a referral by the United Nations Security Council, for their alleged roles in post-election violence in 2007-08.

The ICC has successfully sentenced some Africans for their roles in conflicts within the continent. Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, the leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) in Eastern Congo, was sentenced to 14 years in 2012 for his use of child soldiers during the conflict in the DRC.  Mr Dyilo is the first successful sentencing of the ICC despite being operational since 2005.  Germain Katanga, the former leader of the Patriotic Resistance Force in Ituri in Eastern Congo, was sentenced to 12 years in 2014 for one count of crimes against humanity and four counts of war crimes committed on February 24th, 2003 in the village of Bogoro, DRC. Ahmad al-Mahdi, a Malian warlord, assumed to be part of Anar Eddine, an extremist group allied to Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was found guilty in 2015 and sentenced to nine years for intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion and historical monuments. Jean Pierre Bemba, former vice president of DRC and rebel leader of the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC), was sentenced in 2016 to 18 years for two counts of crimes against humanity and three counts of war crimes for his actions in the CAR from 2002 and 2003.

In 2016 and early 2017, some African countries threatened to also withdraw from the Court including South Africa, Gambia, Kenya and Uganda. In the case of South Africa and the Gambia, due to internal processes, their decisions were revoked or reversed earlier this year. The Zambian government conducted a nation-wide survey to understand the public perception of the court which concluded an overwhelming segment of the population, 93.3%, believed that the country should remain in the ICC.

Internal politics in Burundi and the possible impact due to the withdrawal from the ICC

The official withdrawal of the ICC has come at a very opportune time for the country as President Nkurunziza has been making bold steps to ensure his dictatorship remains intact using constitutional changes, intimidation and death of civilians and opposition leaders. Like Kagame, the Burundian has chosen to change the constitution without entirely changing the agreed upon terms of the Arusha Accords signed in 2000. The Arusha accord stipulates that the government must uphold ethnic and gender quotas in the government, parliament and police. Both presidents have chosen to tackle the term limit problem of two terms. Unlike in Rwanda, Burundians have taken to the streets to protests the dictatorship but at a high cost.

At the end of the day, as the situation in Burundi is likely to affect the neighbouring countries, especially Rwanda and DRC. It is vital that the East African Community (EAC) and the African Union, rather than the United Nations, get ahead of the problem. Without the president feeling accountable to a higher institution such as the ICC for his alleged crimes, nothing is stopping him from doing unimaginable harm.

Loise Ndegwa

Loise Ndegwa is currently a Masters student at the University of Cape Town studying International Relations. She is also a Mandela-Rhodes scholar 2016 Cohort.

About Loise Ndegwa

Loise Ndegwa is currently a Masters student at the University of Cape Town studying International Relations. She is also a Mandela-Rhodes scholar 2016 Cohort.