Last week’s vote in the Burundi parliament to begin the process of becoming the first country to withdraw from the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) has prompted international outcry and fears of deepening of the country’s serious violent and political crisis. The ICC prosecutor’s examination of the commission of alleged grave crimes since an electoral crisis earlier this year remains unaffected however.
Wednesday’s vote attracted widespread condemnation from civil society in Burundi and around the world, as well as fears for the safety and rights of the Burundi people.
“This vote is a terrible setback to a country that is facing a serious violent and political crisis. It comes at the very moment that thousands of Burundians thirst for fair, effective and independent criminal justice – as demonstrated by the families of victims that broke their silence and seized the ICC when their cries for justice were ignored by the national justice system,” said Lambert Nigarura, chairman, Burundi national coalition for the ICC.
“The withdrawal from the Statute by a State Party would represent a setback in the fight against impunity and the efforts towards the objective of universality of the Statute,” said Sidiki Kaba, president of the Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Statute of the ICC.
“Burundi civil society is clear that their government is withdrawing from democracy, human rights and the rule of law, not the ICC,” said William R. Pace, convenor of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court. He added that “African governments overwhelmingly voted for and ratified the ICC treaty, stating that they did not want a repeat of the Rwandan genocide, where there was a breakdown in the rule of law and justice.”
“The voices of victims are often lost in the ‘ICC targeting Africa’ rhetoric and in discussions calling for head of state immunity. If states pull out from the ICC, a key avenue for justice for millions of people will be lost,” said Stephen Lamony, head of advocacy and policy, Coalition for the ICC.
“The withdrawal from the ICC and the expulsion of the United Nations human rights office from Burundi is a significant escalation of the regime’s policy to isolate itself. This attempt to deprive the international community of its eyes and ears in Burundi in order to continue to commit serious crimes with impunity and without the world knowing requires a strong and immediate response from the African Union and the United Nations”, declared Dimitris Christopoulos, president of the FIDH.
“This decision says less about the I.C.C. and more about Burundi and its political posturing and disregard for justice,” said Param-Preet Singh, an associate director at Human Rights Watch.
“This vote, at a time when the ICC is examining allegations of crimes committed in Burundi, highlights the government’s unwillingness to deliver justice for victims,” said Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes
According to several Burundian lawmakers, including some who voted on Wednesday to withdraw from the ICC, the outcome reflects a criticism often cited by the Court’s detractors: that it acts as a vehicle for western interests.
“The Court is a political tool used by powers to remove whoever they want from power on the African continent,” said pro-government lawmaker Gabriel Ntisezerana.
“The importance of justice is to reconcile people, the importance of justice is to solidify peace. If you look at how the ICC is working now, and say that we want to let them implement what they want, do you think Burundi would be very peaceful?” asked Edouard Nduwimana, a Burundian legislator who voted to withdraw.
“The ICC is an instrument that is being used to try to change power in Burundi,”said Aloys Ntakarutimana, party member of the National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy.
Burundian politicians and lawmakers who opposed withdrawal from the ICC however said that the country was on a dangerous trajectory without the ICC to monitor and assist in its delivery of genuine justice.
“As a representative of the Burundian people, my mission is to defend its interests and its rights. This is why I begged my peers in Parliament not to vote to withdraw from the Rome Statute, which had no other goal than to ensure impunity for those who are mistreating Burundians. I am today horrified to see Burundi take this dangerous path and I can only call on Burundian citizens and the international community to make sure that human rights are respected for all,” said Hon. Fabien Banciryanino, member of the National Assembly of Burundi, is one of the two MPs who voted against the withdrawal.
“It is known in all of the world that the great predators of human rights are the governments. The ICC is not the problem. The problem is, we the Africans, we don’t know how to protect human rights,” said Burundian lawmaker André Ndayizamba.
“The output of Burundi of the ICC is a political and diplomatic error,” said Ndayizamba André, member of the minority wing Union for National Progress.
Opposition lawmaker Fabien Baciryanino said that withdrawing was “no more, no less, than inciting the Burundian people to commit more crimes.
Parliamentarians in the Parliamentarian for Global Action network from across Africa also reacted in shock.
“The Members of PGA in Democratic Republic of Congo are all deeply worried by the abuses committed in Burundi – our neighbor – and by the decision of our counterparts there that chose chaos and impunity rather than law and justice,” Hon. Dieudonné Upira Sunguma Kamgimbi, Member of the National Assembly of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Chairman of PGA’s National Group.
UN figures concurred. A spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General noted on Wednesday that no letter had been received from Burundian lawmakers indicating their decision, and that “if a letter were received, it would be regrettable.”
“We are very alarmed about the trajectory the country is taking,”said Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, UN human rights chief.
One Burundian activist, Vital Nshimirimana, called on the UN to take a more proactive approach to the vote by challenging the government’s decision.
“Already, we have information that intelligence agents are torturing, killing Burundians behind closed doors,” he said. “The world ought to rescue the people of Burundi.”
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said withdrawing from the ICC would “isolate Burundi from its neighbors and the international community at a time when accountability, transparency and engaged dialogue are most needed.”
“There is a possibility for countries to withdraw, but it only takes effect one year after being submitted to the [United Nations Secretary-General],”said ICC spokesperson Fadi el-Abdallah. “Withdrawal does not affect the past obligation of a country to cooperate with any ongoing proceedings or investigation.”