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African civil society write to the new ICC prosecutor

By 22 November 2012January 24th, 2023International Justice6 min read

NGOs from across the African continent have written to the new Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, raising key issues that they believe need to be addressed during her tenure so as to reinvigorate and ensure continued support for the International Criminal Court and international justice.

Read the letter below.


Mrs. Fatou Bensouda


International Criminal Court

The Hague, the Netherlands

We, the undersigned African civil society organizations and international nongovernmental organizations with a presence in Africa, write to congratulate you on your recent appointment as Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) is a cornerstone of the ICC and we have confidence that it will benefit from your skills, experience, and demeanor.  We are looking forward to your leadership and guidance in the work of the office.

As you know, a critical challenge for the OTP, and the ICC more generally, is its relationship with Africa, and particularly the African Union (AU). Many of our organizations campaigned for the establishment of the ICC. Over the past several years we have engaged in collective, collaborative advocacy to counter backlash against the ICC from a number of African leaders, which has emanated largely from the AU following ICC arrest warrants issued for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. Our organizations, which are based in many of Africa’s capitals, have issued group declarations, news releases, and analyses on shared concerns such as the need for an ICC liaison office with the AU in Addis Ababa and AU decisions calling for non-cooperation with the ICC. We have also worked closely with African media to draw attention to anticipated travel by al-Bashir to countries that should arrest him, which has sometimes contributed to cancelled visits, and to provide a more balanced view on Africa’s relationship with the ICC in news stories.

Despite tensions between the ICC and the AU, there have been recent important signs of a positive view of the ICC from more African governments. As you know, Malawi’s new president, Joyce Banda, made it clear in May 2012 that Malawi would fulfill its ICC obligations and arrest al-Bashir if he attended the African Union Summit there. Other states—including Botswana, South Africa, Burkina Faso, and Niger—also have reaffirmed publicly the need to arrest ICC suspects on their territories.

These developments reinforce that opportunities exist for the OTP to work with African governments on promoting a principled, supportive relationship between the AU and the ICC. In this context, we would like to make several recommendations, which we believe will help promote the court’s effective functioning and work in Africa. These are the need for:

  1. A more proactive approach to explaining the independent character of the OTP and the parameters under which the ICC can and cannot act in relation to different country situations.

In our experience, too often the OTP, and the ICC more generally, is seen as being responsible for decisions that are in fact out of its control. This is especially the case for action or lack of action by the United Nations Security Council to refer situations involving non-states parties to the court. As you know, some African leaders have repeatedly criticized the ICC for failing to take up situations that are beyond the court’s mandate. We believe this is due partly to misunderstandings or misinterpretations of the limitations and scope of the mandate of the OTP and the ICC.

As a key official at the ICC with responsibilities related to whether the ICC becomes involved in different country situations, we believe that you are in a prime position to provide greater clarity to the general public and African leaders on the way the court works, and what its structural and legal limitations are. We believe continually emphasizing the parameters of the ICC’s role will help reduce misunderstanding and attacks on the court that seem to be fueled in part by lack of accurate information.

The second joint AU-ICC technical seminar held at the AU, your office’s participation in the Security Council’s open debate on peace and justice focusing on the ICC last month, your participation at the African Prosecutors Association Annual General Assembly and Conference in Namibia, the seminar on the ICC hosted in South Africa by the Institute for Security Studies, recent meetings with various stakeholders in Kenya, and the side event organized at the 11th Assembly of State Parties to the ICC on African efforts to end impunity are encouraging examples of interactions that can contribute to increasing relevant understanding. Going forward, we encourage you to give priority to clarifying the role of the ICC and how that relates to the role of the Security Council in public and private communications with government and AU officials.

  1. Actively encouraging in public and private communications the importance of complementarity and the role of African states and the AU in promoting complementarity.

As you know, complementarity is a key aspect of the ICC system. In our view, it is an important way to ensure more comprehensive accountability, including in Africa, and it also is an important element of demonstrating that the ICC is not only focused on accountability before international courts.

In the past few years, several African states have passed comprehensive ICC implementing legislation, but the overall number of states in Africa that have done so remains quite small. At last count, fewer than 10 African countries had adopted such legislation, yet many countries have draft legislation before their legislatures.

We note statements you have made in countries such as Guinea and Nigeria on the importance of domestic accountability. We believe important elements that should be continually inserted into your public and private communications in countries where grave crimes have been committed, but also with the AU and all African governments, are the need to strengthen the capacity of national courts to prosecute the most serious crimes in violation of international law, including by adoption of legislation that makes the gravest crimes punishable domestically. This will not only help to promote better dynamics on ICC intervention in Africa, but the delivery of  justice more widely.

  1. More and improved overall outreach and public information.

Over the past 10 years, some of our organizations have substantially contributed towards the work of the court through disseminating information about the work of the OTP and the ICC generally. We believe increased outreach and public information efforts by the OTP at all levels, from the grassroots to the AU, in collaboration with the ICC’s outreach office, is vital to facilitate better relations with African states and greater clarity on the involvement of the ICC in Africa.

We also encourage your office to regularly engage local civil society in countries where the ICC is conducting investigations. We believe this will enhance your office’s understanding of concerns from the communities most affected by the crimes, and allow your office to make information available on country situations under the OTP’s purview that is responsive to local concerns, thereby enhancing the court’s impact. Your recent visit to Kenya provides a good example of such type of interaction; this was welcome and should be continued.

We hope these reflections and recommendations are useful, and we wish you the very best in leading the court to greater achievements and in particular towards supporting the role of the OTP in undertaking its functions.


  • Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law, Sierra Leone
  • Children Education Society, Tanzania
  • Coalition for the International Criminal Court, with offices in Benin and the Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Human Rights Watch, with offices in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, and South Africa
  • International Commission of Jurists, Kenya
  • International Crime in Africa Programme, Institute for Security Studies, South Africa
  • Legal Defence and Assistance Project, Nigeria
  • Media Foundation for West Africa, Ghana
  • Nigerian Coalition on the ICC, Nigeria
  • Southern Africa Litigation Centre, South Africa
  • West African Bar Association, Nigeria



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