The tiny west african country of Gabon is newest place the International Criminal Court may probe for serious human rights violations. Allegations of abuse stem from a disputed election last month which set off riots in the country, which has a population of less than 2 million.

But with this newest intervention by the International Criminal Court may also come some serious baggage. The ICC’s reputation in Africa has taken a plunge in recent years, despite some landmark cases.

Most situations under investigation are in African countries, including a sitting head of state. Compelling arguments have been made by both commentators and African leaders that the power dynamics of international affairs are the reason for the ICC picking primarily on Africa. On the other hand, the Court exists in part to help countries who are unable to conduct their own investigations; so can an argument also be made for the Court to fill that void when needed?

We may soon get a good opportunity to find out, as ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda recently announced that the Court would open a “preliminary examination” into post-election violence in Gabon, according to France 24. This will not be a full investigation, however, as the Court will first have to determine whether there is enough evidence to proceed.

On August 27, incumbent President Ali Bongo was re-elected by a very thin margin over opposition leader Jean Ping. Ping claimed the election was fraudulent, but the Constitutional Court dismissed these allegations. The AU, UN, and EU have also voiced concern about the transparency of the poll.

Violence erupted a few days after the election when Bongo was officially announced the winner, despite promises from the President of an inclusive government. Opposition supporters attacked the national assembly, burning the parliament building; and the BBC reported that over 1,000 people were arrested and at least three people killed. Ali Bongo became President after his father, who had ruled for over 40 years, died in 2009.

The government in Libreville asked the ICC prosecutor’s office for an investigation on September 21, in a letter signed by the Justice Minister. It alleges incidents of incitement to commit genocide and crimes against humanity by Ping and opposition supporters, referring to an incendiary speech given by Ping during his campaign, incidents of torture at Ping’s party headquarters, and directives to, as quoted by France 24, “fire on the crowds, and take part in creating a climate of violence and terror among the civilian population.” The letter acknowledged that the government itself could also be investigated.

On Ping’s side of it, his lawyer told AFP that the ICC referral is actually a “response to our own investigations which show probable cause of crimes against humanity… They only allege preparations to commit crimes. We have been investigating actual crimes. There’s a difference.” He added that the opposition would be sending its own file to the ICC to aid in the prosecutor’s preliminary examination.

It’s a good sign that both sides of this seem to accept the authority and legitimacy of the ICC and trust it to handle the case. The Court will definitely have to consider all allegations, and it’s important not to think of this as a zero-sum game. It’s possible that crimes were committed on both sides.

Since the letter to the ICC from Libreville and the accompanying dossier sent by the opposition have come relatively swiftly, the Court’s early involvement could provide a strong deterrent effect, particularly for political leaders who may be able to appeal to their supporters for calm. It seems that, unlike many other politically motivated actors in the world who don’t care, neither side in Gabon wants to be seen as being guilty of grave human rights violations or crimes against humanity.

If an investigation is opened into Gabon, it will be interesting to see how, in addition to the deterrent effect, the Court’s activities may help or hinder the mediation of these political tensions. It may also have wider repercussions, however. With both sides in Gabon going to the ICC themselves, if the Court manages a smooth transitional process it may start to change perceptions of the Court on the continent.

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