ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Africa has agreed that sitting heads of state should not be put on trial by the International Criminal Court where Kenya’s leaders are in the dock, Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom said before African leaders met on Saturday.
The ministers of the 54-member African Union also called for deferring the cases of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, the minister said after a meeting to discuss Africa’s relations with the court based in The Hague.
“We have rejected the double standard that the ICC is applying in dispensing international justice,” Tedros told the delegates after a ministerial meeting on Friday that ran beyond midnight. The summit is expected to endorse the recommendations.
He said trying Kenya’s president and his deputy infringed on that nation’s sovereignty. The two men deny charges that they orchestrated a killing spree after a disputed 2007 election.
Frustration with the ICC has been growing in Africa because the court has convicted only one man, an African warlord, and all others it has charged are also Africans.
The ministers did not call for a mass walk-out from the court’s jurisdiction, however. Officials had previously said that idea would be on the agenda but it had not drawn broad support among the continent’s 34 signatories to the court’s Rome Statute.
Rights groups had urged African nations not to turn their backs on the court, which they say is vital to ending what they see as a culture of impunity in African politics.
“We underscored that sitting heads of state and governments should not be prosecuted while in office,” Tedros said, speaking at the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa.
The minister said a group led by the AU chair, now Ethiopia, with representatives from Africa’s five regions would press the U.N. Security Council to defer the court proceedings against the Kenyan leadership and Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
While the Kenyan politicians have cooperated with the court, Bashir has rejected the ICC’s charges of war crimes and genocide, and is now subject to an arrest warrant.
Tedros told Reuters a one-year delay was being requested under article 16 of the Rome Statute.
Ministers called for using video links in the Kenyan trials to ensure leaders could carry on their official duties.
The court has yet to rule on whether Kenyatta and Ruto can be excused from large parts of their trials or whether they can participate by a video link. Proceedings, though not trials, against the two were underway before their March vote win.
“Demanding respect is the least Africa can do, but I also don’t like to see this mistaken for - as we have seen with some of the detractors of this exercise - that Africans are supporting impunity. We don‘t,” Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo told Reuters.
After wrangling over wording at Friday’s meeting that ran long past the scheduled close, one senior delegate described the outcome as a “good compromise”. Kenya said it had not pushed for a walk-out but said others had supported the idea.
Some Africans, including officials from heavyweights South African and Nigeria, had indicated there was not broad support for a walk-out from a court that received the backing of many Africans when it was set up.
Before the meeting, the London-based rights group Amnesty International urged African nations not to end cooperation with the court, saying victims of crimes deserved justice.
“The ICC should expand its work outside Africa, but it does not mean that its eight current investigations in African countries are without basis,” Amnesty’s deputy director of law and policy, Tawanda Hondora, said in a statement.
Kenyan Foreign Minister Amina Mohamed said she was satisfied with the outcome of the meeting, adding that immunity for a sitting president was “a principle that has existed for a long time” in international law.
Lawyers for Kenyatta asked on Thursday that his trial on charges of crimes against humanity be abandoned, saying defence witnesses had been intimidated.
Ruto went on trial in The Hague last month and Kenyatta’s trial is due to start on November 12.
Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall