The nation of Gambia is the smallest on Africa’s mainland, ruled by dictator Yahya Jammeh, who has held power since he overthrew the prior government in a 1994 military coup. It’s also one of the top sources of migrants who regularly flee its deteriorating economy to seek better opportunities in the European Union, often risking their lives by paying smugglers to transport them on rubber dinghies to Italy and Greece.
Gambian officials blame the EU for lives lost on that perilous journey, and have repeatedly tried to convince the International Criminal Court to prosecute the European government bloc for its failures to stop the smuggling. It hasn’t worked.
So this week Gambia became the third African nation — following Burundi and South Africa — to bail out of the International Criminal Court (or more properly, out of the treaty that binds it to the court). In a statement on state television, Gambian Information Minister Sheriff Bojang said the court was clearly designed by Western whites to target African blacks, echoing complaints by South African and Burundian officials that the international justice system focuses its attention solely on cases from Africa.
“[T]he ICC, despite being called International Criminal Court, is in fact an International Caucasian Court for the persecution and humiliation of people of color, especially Africans,” he said.
Gambia itself has been accused of carrying out torture and arbitrary executions of those who oppose the Jammeh regime. Coincidentally, Fatou Bensouda, the ICC’s chief prosecutor, hails from Gambia, and previously served as justice minister under Jammeh. The ICC has not investigated Gambia, but Bojang said the court has failed to take seriously atrocities committed by Westerners, pointing to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s involvement in the Iraq War. Last year, the court declined to indict him for civilian deaths in that conflict.
“There are many Western countries, at least 30, that have committed heinous war crimes against independent sovereign states and their citizens since the creation of the ICC and not a single Western war criminal has been indicted,” Bojang said.
So far, all three countries that have withdrawn from the court have had personal disagreements with its leadership. In Gambia, it was the failed prosecution of the EU. In Burundi, where the country has been in political turmoil since President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his decision to seek a third term last year, officials refused to allow ICC investigators to look into allegations of human rights abuses. And last year, South African officials refused to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir after he visited for a conference in Johannesburg, despite the ICC’s requests they hand him over to the court to face charges for war crimes.
Former ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo is infuriated by the pattern of African nations leaving the court, and said “Burundi is leaving the ICC to keep committing crimes against humanity and possible genocide in its territory.”
“Burundi’s president wants free hands to attack civilians,” he said.
But in a phone call with Foreign Policy after Burundi announced its decision to leave the court, Burundian Ambassador to Washington Ernest Ndabashinze presaged some of Gambia’s gripes, saying “it sounds like the ICC was created just for Africans.”
Photo credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images