Participants call for Strengthening of African Criminal Justice

By Desmond Davies, Ghana News Agency, London Bureau

London, July 19, GNA – African countries should strengthen their judicial systems if they want to deal with international criminal justice cases on the continent instead of relying on the International Criminal Court (ICC).

This was the recurring theme at a side event at the recent AU Summit held in Addis Ababa organised by the Africa Legal Aid (AFLA) to chart the way forward on the work of the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC), which tried former Chadian President Hissen Habre.

President Habre was found guilty of crimes against humanity and torture among other things in May 2016 and confirmed by the EAC’s appeals Chamber, sitting in Dakar, in April this year.

Following what was a landmark case in Africa, international justice and human rights activists have been calling for the continent to use the trial as a means of dealing with the contentious issue of impunity on the continent.

According to AFLA, a pan-African NGO working to promote accountability and end impunity for gross human rights offences, based in The Hague, the Habre trial gave hope for “an African solution to an African problem”.

One of the roles of the ICC is to help members of the Rome Statute to deal with cases of international criminal justice because the Court would never have the capacity or right amount of funding to handle the growing number of cases.

However, in the case of Africa,  the debate about “complementarity” has been a heated one.

Speaking at the opening of the event, the Executive Director of AFLA, Evelyn Ankumah, told participants that “there is much agreement…that criminal justice should be done as close to home as possible”.

She said: “The closer justice is done at home, the greater its legitimacy and that is what we call complementarity for which Africa needs “a car that will drive us to a destination called ‘criminal justice’”.

She said if that was the case, there should be “an African driver who knows the bumpy roads ahead”, adding that national courts knew a country’s “legal-political map” best.

Ms Ankumah noted, the national driver “may not be able or willing to drive to the destination called criminal justice”, adding that: “We may have to engage additional drivers, as the road to criminal justice in Africa is probably a long and bumpy one.

“We know there is an international driver who obtained its license some 20 years ago in Rome and has acquired quite some experience.

“Some of us, however, have doubts whether that driver fully knows its way on Africa’s long and winding roads and whether the driver will be able to reach the desired destination.”

Ms Ankumah said in the Habre case, “that [African] driver did an extraordinary job and drove all concerned to a destination called justice”.

She said in future, “we must ascertain ourselves that the African driver is fully competent and equipped with relevant resources”, adding: “If not, we may have to fall back on or rely on that experienced international driver.

“In Africa, we do not have much experience with transitional criminal justice.

“There is no guarantee that, for example, the proposed African Criminal Law Chamber will actually be able to deliver justice.

“To make such a chamber successful, or to let universal jurisdiction exercised by foreign courts work, we must carefully study the work of the Extraordinary African Chambers to explore what made it successful,” Ms Ankumah added.

Reed Brody, one of the lawyers representing victims, noted in a 36-page report about the trial: “The uniqueness of the campaign was that it put the victims at the centre, creating not just an irresistible political dynamic but a trial itself that both showcased the victims’ efforts and largely met their expectations.

“Even rape victims broke their 25-year silence to testify.”

Mr Brody, a Commissioner at the International Commission of Jurists, noted: “It was the first time ever that a head of state had been prosecuted for human rights crimes in the courts of another country.

“The case was widely hailed as a milestone for justice in Africa.”

Mr Habre was overthrown in 1990 after eight years in power during which he was accused of torture, among other crimes, and some of his victims, such as Souleymane Guengueng, a former civil servant, began a 25-year campaign for justice.

It was not until Macky Sall became President of Senegal in 2012 that things moved very swiftly for Mr Habre’s victims.

“On a shoestring budget of less than €9 million, the Extraordinary African Chambers in the courts of Senegal, investigated massive crimes committed by a former dictator over 25 years earlier in a country thousands of miles away, held a fair and efficient trial, heard an appeal and issued a final verdict, making it the envy of every international or hybrid tribunal,” Mr Brody explained.

The EAC ruled that Mr Habre should pay €123 million in compensation to his victims.

While there were those at the event who were upbeat about the Habre exercise, many participants at the session pointed to the urgent need to have credible judicial systems in Africa to ensure that international justice was served to make the ICC a court of last resort.

They called for domestic legal systems to function well, warning however that there was a lack of political will to make that happen.

Others, including the Director of Public Prosecutions in Kenya, Keriako Tobiko, encouraged the AFLA and the AU build the capacity of investigating and prosecuting authorities to deal with international justice crimes in Africa.

He added that the ICC had not done much to develop complementarity in Africa that would help strengthen judicial and other legal capacities.


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