Pre-Trial Chamber III of the International Criminal Court, composed of Judges Chang-ho Chung (Presiding), Antoine Kesia-Mbe Mindua and Raul C. Pangalangan, issued a public redacted version of its decision authorising the ICC Prosecutor to open an investigation into crimes agaunst humanity and war crimes allegedly committed in Burundi or by nationals of Burundi outside Burundi between 26 April 2015 and 26 October 2017. The Prosecutor is free to extend her investigation to crimes committed before 26 April 2015 or to continue after 26 October 2017 if certain legal requirements are met.
The decision was first issued under seal on 25 October 2017, just two days before Burundi's withdrawal from the Rome Statute, the treaty that creates the ICC, became effective. The Chamber accepted, exceptionally, after ordering the Prosecutor to provide additional information, to conduct the authorisation proceedings under seal and only with the participation of the Prosecutor, in order to attenuate risks to the life and well-being of victims and potential witnesses. The Prosecutor was in addition exceptionally granted a limited delay of 10 working days in notifying the initiation of the investigation to States normally exercising jurisdiction over the alleged crimes in order to prepare and implement protective measures for victims and potential witnesses to mitigate the potential risks.
The Pre-Trial Chamber found that the Court has jurisdiction over crimes allegedly committed while Burundi was a State party to the ICC Rome Statute. Burundi was a State Party from the moment the Rome Statute entered into effect for Burundi (1 December 2004) until the end of the one-year interval since the notification of Burundi's withdrawal (26 October 2017). The withdrawal became effective on 27 October 2017. Accordingly, the Court retains jurisdiction over any crime within its jurisdiction up to and including 26 October 2017, regardless of Burundi's withdrawal. As a consequence, the Court may exercise its jurisdiction even after the withdrawal became effective for Burundi as long as the investigation or prosecution relate to the crimes allegedly committed during the time Burundi was a State Party to the Rome Statute. Moreover, Burundi has a duty to cooperate with the Court for the purpose of this investigation since the investigation was authorised on 25 October 2017, prior to the date on which the withdrawal became effective for Burundi. This obligation to cooperate remains in effect for as long as the investigation lasts and encompasses any proceedings resulting from the investigation. Burundi accepted those obligations when ratifying the Rome Statute.
Pre-Trial Chamber III, considered that the supporting materials presented by the ICC Prosecutor, including victims' communications submitted to the Prosecutor, offer a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation in relation to crimes against humanity, including: a) murder and attempted murder; b) imprisonment or severe deprivation of liberty; c) torture; d) rape; e) enforced disappearance and f) persecution, allegedly committed in Burundi, and in certain instances outside of the country by nationals of Burundi, since at least 26 April 2015. The Chamber noted that, according to estimates, at least 1,200 persons were allegedly killed, thousands illegally detained, thousands reportedly tortured, and hundreds disappeared. The alleged acts of violence have reportedly resulted in the displacement of 413,490 persons between April 2015 and May 2017.
The crimes were allegedly committed by State agents and other groups implementing State policies, including the Burundian National Police, national intelligence service, and units of the Burundian army, operating largely through parallel chains of command, together with members of the youth wing of the ruling party, known as the "Imbonerakure".
The ICC Prosecutor is not restricted to the incidents and crimes described in the decision but may, on the basis of the evidence, extend her investigation to other crimes against humanity or other crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court (i.e. genocide or war crimes), as long as she remains within the parameters of the authorised investigation.
Lastly, the Chamber noted that, according to available information, the Burundian authorities have remained inactive in relation to potential cases arising out of the situation in Burundi. Despite the establishment of three commissions of inquiry and certain proceedings before domestic courts, the Chamber found that these steps were either deficient or did not concern the same persons or the same crimes that are likely to be the focus of an ICC investigation. Accordingly, there is no conflict of jurisdiction between the Court and Burundi.
The Office of the Prosecutor will collect the necessary evidence from a variety of reliable sources, independently, impartially, and objectively. The investigation can take as long as needed to gather the required evidence. If sufficient evidence would be collected to establish that specific individuals bear criminal responsibility, the Prosecutor would then request Judges of Pre-Trial Chamber III to issue either summonses to appear or warrants of arrest.
By Terry Jeff Odhiambo
Gambia stands as a testament to the glacial progress Africa is making in the sphere of human rights. With the country on the mend and efforts under way to bring former President Yahya Jammeh to justice, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights could scarcely have found a better host country to hold its 30th anniversary.
The celebrations in Banjul, between November 1 and 4, 2017, come at a time of hope and restoration for the Gambia after the end of Jammeh’s 22-year dictatorial regime. Jammeh’s government was notorious for its disregard of international human rights norms despite ironically hosting the ACHPR. Arbitrary arrests, threats, enforced disappearances and torture were commonplace. There is still plenty of room for improvement. Attorney General Abubacarr Tambadou, who is also Justice Minister, told the opening of the 35th Forum on the Participation of NGOs in the 61st Ordinary Session of the ACHPR that notwithstanding the various strides made by nations in the application of human rights instruments, the full enjoyment of basic rights and freedoms since the adoption of the African Charter, continues to face challenges. The Justice minister reiterated that the new government of Gambia had reaffirmed its commitment to protecting human rights and to living up to its position as the human rights capital of Africa. As recently as September 2017 the Gambia, signed five international treaties on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly, including the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which seeks to abolish abolition the death penalty. In the coming months, Gambia is committed to ratifying more human rights treaties, including the Convention against Torture, and adopting a new republican constitution within the shortest time possible and developing a system of justice that can look into past atrocities and sustain its democracy. The NGOs Forum, which is usually held on the margins of the ACHPR Ordinary Sessions, is a platform for fostering collaboration between civil society organisations on the one hand and the ACHPR on the other, with the aim of promoting and protecting human rights in Africa.
Human rights abuses in Africa are a sad reality. The tableau of human suffering on the continent is scar on humanity’s conscience. From South Sudan, to the Central African Republic to Egypt and Ethiopia, abuses are increasingly being witnessed more than ever before. As one of the bulwarks against this depressing trend, the work of the ACHPR since its inception calls for evaluation. The promise by states and governments to guarantee human dignity and rights – through almost universal endorsement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and ever-increasing ratification of international human rights treaties – seems to have had little impact on the daily lives of millions of people in the region.
The sad reality is that the human rights situation in various African countries continues to deteriorate on the ACHPR’s watch. There has been an escalation of threats to the enjoyment of human rights on the continent, ranging from arbitrary arrests, infringement of freedom of association and assembly, police brutality and threats to human rights defenders.
Since the inception of the ACHPR, seven states have never reported on the situation of human rights to the commission. The states -- Comoros, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Guinea Bissau, Sao Tome and Principe, Somalia and South Sudan -- continue to witness some of gravest human rights violations on the continent. Twenty other states have three or more pending state reports -- including Gambia, while 16 other states have one or two pending state reports. Only nine states, namely Kenya, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Mauritius, Namibia, Niger and South Africa are up to date with their state reporting obligations. The Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Niger are set to report during the 61st Ordinary Session of the ACHPR. State reporting procedure is a stock taking that serves as a forum for constructive dialogue and enables the Commission to monitor implementation of the African Charter and identify challenges impeding the realisation of the objects of the African Charter.
Some of the critiques that the Commission has received over time include the failure to implement its findings, such as decisions on: individual communications, concluding observations on State reports, country and thematic resolutions, and recommendations made in relation to missions to countries.
The 61st Ordinary Session of the ACHPR will see the swearing in of new commissioners and the exit of those whose terms have ended. The ACHPR is composed of 11 Commissioners, who are “chosen from amongst African personalities of the highest reputation, known for their high morality, integrity, impartiality and competence in matters of human and peoples’ rights; particular consideration being given to persons having legal experience” (African Charter, Article 31). They are elected by the African Union Assembly from experts nominated by States parties to the Charter. The Commissioners serve in their personal capacity and are elected for a six-year renewable term.
The upcoming 30th Anniversary celebrations are an opportunity to reaffirm the values and enduring principles enshrined in the African Charter mobilize people around the continent, and take stock of human rights today in Africa.
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