Ed note. African heads of state are gathering at the African Union on Friday to discuss calls by some governments to withdraw from the International Criminal Court.
What follows is an open letter from Victor Ochen, a Ugandan civic leader and victims’ rights advocate. Ochen is the founder of the Africa Youth Initiative Network, which works with war crimes victims in Northern Uganda. Ochen brings a perspective that has been completely overlooked at this meeting of the African Union and his missive ought to be heeded by governments seeking to exit the ICC.
Read this in full.
To the Kind Attention of Your Excellencies the African Presidents:
I write to you as a fellow African, as a brother to you and those millions of Africans who continues to suffer from different forms of injustices. Above all, as someone who shares with you the deep love for our beloved continent. I reach to you Heads of African States, with my deepest compassion in the light of the effects of decades of dreadful conflicts in Africa. I do believe that my views are widely shared by majority of Africans and people around the world with desires to see profound meaningful and positive change comes to the continent. Above all, I am representing the voices of victims and survivors whose lives have been shattered by wars, and who are living with great despair, anger and bitterness.
Whereas you and your colleagues gather for the Extra Ordinary African Union Summit to deliberate how best to uphold the promise of the African Union to end impunity, we ask you to never lose sight of the profound suffering that is linked to not keeping that promise. Too often have the perpetrators of the gravest of crimes gotten away with it. In the eyes of civilian populations, most of these serious violations have resulted from governance issues, either through actions or state inactions. It would be very sad for African leaders not to acknowledge that greater percentages of Africans have lived and continues to suffer atrocious wars in the last 30 years; and Africa continues to experience the worst crimes against humanity.
Whereas the key summit deliberation might be about the International Criminal Court (ICC), including potential withdrawal from the Rome Statute by some states, may you not forget your obligations based on not only United Nations Charter, but also the African Union charter! Even though you’re political heads of States, it would be honorable of you not to view the ICC with purely political lenses, but wear the human rights lenses; and look from the victims’ point of views. May you all realize that any misconceived resolution viewed as a guilt crusade against the ICC might as well be interpreted by your fellow Africans and people around the world as the African Union’s a crusade against international criminal justice, as well as a crusade against a future of peace and justice in Africa!
Whereas other major nations are embarking on strengthening their roles in protection of their citizens’ human rights, strengthening principles of democracy and promoting justice; it would be the most obsolete decisions to relegate Africa’s search for peace and justice to the colonial excuses. It’s politically disturbing and morally shocking to note that at this point when the world is getting together, the African leaders are mobilizing the continent to subscribe to political bigotry and politics of despair. For the sake of your fellow Africans, and trusting that you’ll listen to your heart, may you never forget that this will bring a huge a shame for our continent and insult to victims! It will definitely create a sense of feeling that African leaders seem unanimously and single-mindedly committed to sustain their people’s suffering, while politically hostile to justice.
Victims’ needs are too real to be politicized, neither should it be a subject to political scapegoating
Our organisation, the African Youth Initiative Network (AYINET), is all too familiar with suffering. We have helped thousands of victims of terror in northern Uganda. We have seen firsthand the effects of the most heinous violations humans have ever inflicted on other humans. Just like in northern Uganda, victims of serious international crimes from other countries continue to endure unspeakable cruelties. They include young children being forced to murder their own parents and siblings as part of being brainwashed into serving as child soldiers. They include tens thousands of children who were abducted, mutilated, tortured, burned and raped. A point not to forget dear Your Excellencies is, “the biggest threats of the poor people and victims of war in your respective countries is not the ICC, but human rights abuses and violations that results into war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocides”.
From a victim’s perspective it is soothing to know that international institutions such as the ICC are ready to fill the justice gap. It will exist as long as national and regional systems are insufficient to deal with these cases. We therefore strongly urge you to collaborate as closely as possible with the ICC, and also to strengthen the ICC’s Trust Fund for Victims, the only organization geared specifically to providing help to victims when they need it most.
Lack of state capacity to facilitate Recovery and Ensure Justice
Thousands of survivors have been living with painful and disfiguring physical wounds to this day. The traumas associated with these kinds of experiences cast their shadows on the lifetimes of several generations and remain for the most part untreated. The main reason for this is the lack of state capacity. The medical and psycho-social needs of the victims exceed the ability of the state to provide much needed relief. As long as we cannot mobilise the capabilities locally, i.e. in Africa, we need to count on help from the rest of the world. Even though this outside support is still insufficient in addressing all the needs of the victims, its sheer existence has been an important source of healing and hope.
Another source of hope for the victims stems from the fact that for the first time in history the world has begun moving away from granting impunity to the perpetrators of atrocity crimes. Lack of state capacity is a huge issue here as well. However, global support made it possible to create international criminal tribunals and special courts on our continent and bring the perpetrators of atrocity crimes to justice. In addition, the existence of the world’s first permanent criminal court, the ICC, enabled a number of African governments to refer cases they were unable to prosecute themselves.
Your Excellencies the Presidents, if you really care about Africa and Africans, this is the time for real choices for meaningful changes that benefits Africans, rather than working against efforts to ensure justice for the victims. I am petitioning you to re-think your decisions, and to choose what will make a better Africa.