African Union 

A strained, but repairable, relationship

The African Union (AU) is the largest and the most active intergovernmental organization on the continent. African governments played a leading role in the establishment of the ICC. However, the opening of International Criminal Court (ICC) investigations into situations in Africa, generally at the behest of the international community and African governments, the AU-ICC relationship has become strained.

Some African leaders, perhaps concerned with avoiding accountability themselves, claim that the ICC is unfairly targeting them and have channelled their opposition through the AU. They have called on African states withdraw en masse from the ICC Rome Statute and to disregard ICC arrest warrants for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

These leaders have used the AU to hinder individual African states’ sovereign right, and obligation in the case of African ICC member states, to cooperate with the ICC.

Yet, the mandate of the AU remains consistent with the ICC Rome Statute on the protection of human rights, including accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide crimes that continue to affect thousands across Africa.

There is an urgent need for both greater AU-ICC dialogue and greater accountability for grave crimes in Africa.

The ICC needs the African Union and African states to help shape an international justice system that serves the interests of all victims of grave international crimes the world over.

Read more on Africa and the ICC

Civil society moving the AU-ICC relationship forward

The AU aims to achieve greater unity among African states, to defend states' integrity and independence, to accelerate political, social and economic integration, to encourage international cooperation, and to promote democratic principles and institutions.

A key goal of the AU’s Peace and Security Council is to anticipate and prevent disputes and conflicts as well as policies that could possible lead to genocide or crimes against humanity. It also charged with promoting democratic practices, good governance, the rule of law, protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms and respect for the sanctity of human rights and international humanitarian law.

We therefore believe that through more and better dialogue, the AU-ICC relationship can improve. We continue to encourage policymakers to remain, or become, members of the ICC system of international justice.

We campaign to highlight the benefits of Rome Statute membership at the national, regional and international levels.

For many years we have been advocating for been advocating for the establishment of an AU-ICC liaison office to promote dialogue and cooperation between the AU and the ICC. 

We also call for the establishment of a Friends of the ICC group of states in Addis Ababa—the seat of the AU—to improve relations between the AU and the ICC and to build high-level political support for the ICC within the AU.

Coalition members are also working to establish relationships with regional legislative bodies in Africa to ensure that they provide political support to the Court and encourage their member states to cooperate with the ICC as required.

Further to developing the positive relationship between the Court and the regional actors, the Coalition provides necessary information to permanent missions of African states to the AU about developments at the ICC in order to raise awareness about the Court. 

Much of the Coalition’s work with regard to the AU has been focused on encouraging AU member states to strengthen their national courts so that they are able to investigate and prosecute ICC crimes domestically under the principle of complementarity.

Read more about our work in Africa

Read moreRead less

No consensus on leaving the ICC 

The anti-ICC campaign began after the ICC issued arrest warrants in 2009 for Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, a country that is not an ICC member state. It picked up momentum after the ICC prosecutor brought cases against Kenyan politicians Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto in 2011, who would go on to become Kenya’s president and deputy. 

The AU has recommended that it’s Open-Ended Committee of African Ministers on the ICC consider a roadmap on possible withdrawal. But to date, no African state has withdrawn from the Rome Statute. In 2016, Burundi’s parliament voted did begin the process of doing so. Civil society, African parliamentarians, United Nations representatives, and government officials all expressed alarm at the move in a country facing a serious violent and political crisis.

Yet there is no consensus among governments to leave the ICC. A 2016 AU meeting saw several states oppose a motion for withdrawal en masse. A decision to withdraw from the Rome Statute is up to individual ICC member states, not the AU. Meanwhile, many African ICC member states have amended their constitutions in line with the Rome Statute to ensure domestic accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

Read moreRead less

Head-of-state immunity at the heart of AU-ICC challenges

The issue of immunity for sitting heads-of-state and high government officials is at the heart of the challenges in the ICC-AU relationship. While immunity for sitting heads of state has been a challenge encountered in some domestic jurisdictions, it has never been available before international or regional criminal courts dealing with grave crimes, and is a cornerstone of the Rome Statute system of international justice.

In 2015, the AU adopted a protocol to give its continental court, African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, authority to prosecute grave crimes. However, a controversial provision envisages immunity for sitting heads of states and other senior government officials. The protocol, which needs 15 ratifications before coming into force, has yet to be ratified by any country.

While blanket immunity for sitting heads of state has been a challenge encountered in some domestic jurisdictions, it has never been available before international or regional criminal courts dealing with grave crimes.

Read more on no immunity 

The African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights
The African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Court) was established in 1998 to complement and reinforce the functions of the ACHPR. The African Court can make binding decisions, including orders of compensation or reparation, while the ACHPR can only make recommendations. Under article 5 of the 1998 Protocol establishing the African Court, the ACHPR, state parties to the Protocol, and African inter-governmental organizations are entitled to submit cases for its review. NGOs with observer status before the ACHPR and individuals from state parties that have made a declaration accepting the jurisdiction of the African Court can also initiate cases directly in accordance with article 34(6).


Read moreRead less