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By 18 January 2013January 23rd, 2023International Justice15 min read

The African Union (AU) Heads of State Summit gets underway next week in Ethiopia. Many will be eagerly watching to see how newly elected AU Chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, oversees proceedings and the stance she adopts on issues facing the continent.

140 African civil society organizations and international organizations with a presence in Africa have written a letter to the AU Commission Chair on combatting impunity. The letter congratulates the Chair on her appointment, urges her to take up the cause of justice for victims of the gravest crimes- genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, and offers observations and recommendations that they believe would be useful to promote that objective. The organizations that have signed the letter have representation in 25 African countries and many of these organizations have worked together over the past several years on joint initiatives to promote justice for victims in Africa.

In light of their key role in the establishment and implementation of African regional human rights mechanisms and the ICC and their interactions with victims, civil society organizations organizations have critical expertise to offer to the AU.

However in the past there has been unwillingness on part of the AU to engage with civil society in a transparent and cooperative manner. Accountable decision making must take the views of the African people and civil society on issues of international criminal justice and others into consideration.  It is hoped that with Dlamini-Zuma at the helm of the AU, the institution will allow itself to be more accessible to civil society, and she will foster a constructive relationship with civil society, facilitating increased public participation and engagement between African civil society, the AU Institutions and Working Groups.

The letter appears below.

HE Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma


African Union Commission

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

 January 17, 2013

Dear AUC Chairperson HE Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma:

We, the undersigned African civil society organizations and international organizations with a presence in Africa, wish to congratulate you on your election as Chairperson of the African Union Commission. We wish you well during your tenure and trust that your leadership will seek to further address key challenges facing the African continent to promote respect for the rule of law and human rights in order to serve the best interests of the people of Africa.

In this regard we write to urge you to address the issue of impunity for international crimes committed on the continent consistent with article 4 of the African Union’s Constitutive Act. African countries have already contributed greatly to ensuring accountability for atrocities. The work of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, wide African membership in the International Criminal Court (ICC), and recent progress in the case of Hissène Habré are just some examples that are testament to this contribution and commitment.

However, it is notable that in recent years the relationship between the ICC and the African Union (AU) has become strained. Some AU and member state representatives have maintained a stance that the ICC is unfairly targeting Africa, and AU decisions have called for African states not to cooperate in surrender of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is sought by the ICC on charges of alleged crimes committed in Darfur, and former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, who was an ICC suspect prior to his death.

We believe that your role as AU Commission Chairperson provides important new opportunities for the AU to renew focus on ensuring redress for victims of serious crimes committed in violation of international law as an essential component of the AU’s contribution to peace and security on the continent. In this effort, we wish to offer several observations and recommendations, which we believe will help to promote justice for the gravest violations of human rights. These are:

  1. The importance of taking account of Africa’s role in calling for ICC involvement in African countries

 While some African leaders have asserted that the ICC is unfairly targeting Africans, we believe this conclusion overlooks important facts that should be incorporated into your analysis and public commentary on issues of justice for international crimes.

 Although the ICC’s current investigations are entirely in Africa, the majority of the court’s investigations came about as a result of a request by the country where the crimes were committed (Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, and Mali). Two other investigations, Darfur and Libya, came about as a result of a United Nations (UN) Security Council referral. Notably, all African members on the Security Council at the time of these referrals voted in favor of them. The ICC prosecutor has in fact acted on his own authority to open an investigation without a request by the country where the crimes were committed in only one situation, Kenya.

 We believe that the ICC’s current focus on African situations where serious crimes in violation of international law have been committed and the court’s efforts to deliver justice to African victims should be welcomed, not criticized. There are of course situations outside of Africa that cry out for ICC involvement, such as Syria, which have not been brought before the court. However, legal limitations on the court’s jurisdiction make certain situations beyond the court’s reach. Specifically, the ICC cannot assert jurisdiction over territories of states that have not become parties to the court unless the UN Security Council refers the situation or the state that is affected by the crimes asks the court to conduct an investigation.

 The ability of permanent Security Council members to utilize their veto power has meant that council action has been influenced by political considerations and crippled the opportunities to advance justice in certain situations. It appears that much of the frustration that has emanated from the AU with regard to the ICC thus relates more to Security Council action than the court itself. Many of our organizations are currently working to ensure the Security Council acts more consistently and fairly on ensuring justice for international crimes. We encourage you to assist the AU in addressing concerns that relate to Security Council actions more directly. We believe that this would help ensure that the AU’s views are more accurately conveyed and promote a more principled approach by the council. 

  1. The importance of AU support to promote domestic capacity to prosecute serious crimes committed in violation of international law

 The ICC is a court of last resort and is not intended to be the primary forum for the investigation and prosecution of serious crimes in violation of international law. The Rome Statute of the ICC envisages states themselves taking the lead in the investigation and prosecution of such crimes, consistent with what is known as the ICC’s complementarity regime and framework.

The ICC’s intervention is limited to situations in which countries are either unable or unwilling to prosecute those suspected of criminal responsibility. Yet, it remains the reality that far too few countries—including those in Africa—have the laws and capacity to prosecute serious crimes committed in violation of international law.

Some African states have incorporated genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, principles of command responsibility, and cooperation with the ICC into their domestic law. Mauritius adopted such legislation in 2012, and other countries—including Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Kenya, Senegal, South Africa, and Uganda—previously enacted such laws. However, the overall number of countries in the region with comprehensive legislation to prosecute these crimes remains under 10. Furthermore, many of the enacted legislations have flaws that could prevent the authorities from investigating or prosecuting the crimes in accordance with international law.

An important role for the AU, in our view, can be to assist states in enhancing their domestic technical and legislative capacity to dispense justice. Accordingly, we urge you to encourage AU member states to strengthen their criminal justice systems to address serious crimes committed in violation of international law. This will not only address AU concerns about justice efforts rendered outside the continent, but enable Africa to best ensure victims have access to redress. In addition, if national courts can ensure justice for crimes committed in their countries, public confidence in and respect for the rule of law in the affected countries and sub-regions will improve.

  1. Recognizing the strong support for the ICC in Africa

African states make up a large regional bloc of parties to the Rome Statute of the ICC. Thirty-three African states out of 54 are already parties to the statute, and Africa’s engagement played a pivotal role in the establishment of the court.

In addition to the African states that have asked for the ICC to open investigations into crimes committed on their territories, there also is a growing list of countries—including Botswana, Burkina Faso, Malawi, South Africa, Niger, Uganda, and Zambia—that have expressly stated that they will fulfill their obligations under the Rome Statute to arrest individuals subject to ICC arrest warrants, if they enter their territories.

African support for the ICC is, however, often overlooked in AU decisions and communications, and we believe it is important that such support be better reflected in future AU action. This includes the AU not renewing decisions that call for non-cooperation with the court, which run counter to African ICC states parties’ obligations under the Rome Statute and the Constitutive Act of the AU. Such decisions also put African ICC states parties who do not wish to negate their international treaty obligations to cooperate with the ICC in a difficult situation.

  1. Expansion of the jurisdiction of the African Court

 The AU has embarked on an initiative to expand the African Court of Justice and Human Rights (the African Court) to include jurisdiction over prosecutions of international crimes. We believe increased opportunities for justice are positive in principle, but it will be important to ensure that the court’s expanded mandate is able to advance justice for all crimes under its jurisdiction. In this regard, we have prepared a letter that outlines areas we believe merit further scrutiny in relation to proposed expansion, which is available at:

 In summary, questions and concerns include, but are not limited to:

  • possible impact of expansion on implementation of the human rights mandate of the African Court;
  • ability of the court to obtain the intensive resources that will be needed to achieve an expanded mandate, essentially the creation of a new court within the existing court;
  • importance of ensuring the proposed court does not compromise the ability of the ICC and national jurisdictions to deliver justice in areas under their jurisdiction; and
  • value of further consultation with civil society on expansion, in addition to other international justice issues.
  1. Improve communications between the AU and the ICC

In the face of strained relations between the AU and the ICC, we believe increased communication would play a critical, positive role. Both institutions are complex and have nuanced mandates. More frequent information exchange could help to clarify misconceptions and promote greater understanding of the institutions’ respective roles.

 The ICC previously sought to establish an AU-ICC Liaison Office in Addis Ababa. This is similar to an ICC liaison office that exists at the UN. We encourage you to revisit the establishment of such an office and move forward with its creation. Notably, African states parties previously wrote to the AU to expressly call for the office’s creation.

 *             *             *

We hope this information will be of use to you during your tenure at the AU. Our organizations—which are based in many different African countries—have worked for years to ensure justice for victims of mass atrocities. This includes through collective advocacy to promote principled support for the International Criminal Court. We are convinced that although the ICC is not without its shortcomings, the ICC is a crucial court of last resort that should be supported.

We would appreciate the opportunity for some members of our organizations to meet with you to discuss these issues in greater depth. We may be reached at to arrange a meeting should that be possible.

Congratulations again on your election and we look forward to working with you.


  1. Access to Justice, Nigeria
  2. Action Contre l’Impunité pour les Droits Humains, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)
  3. Action des Chrétiens Activistes des Droits de l’Homme à Shabunda, DRC
  4. Action Humanitaire et de Développement Intégral, DRC
  5. Action pour la Protection des Droits de l’Homme, Côte d’Ivoire
  6. Africa Legal Aid, with offices in Ghana and South Africa
  7. African Center for Justice and Peace Studies, Sudan
  8. Alliance des Femmes pour l’Egalité et le Genre en Guinée, Guinea
  9. Amnesty International Section Côte d’Ivoire, Côte d’Ivoire
  10. Amuria District Development Agency, Uganda
  11. Association des Jeunes Avocats pour un Leadership Intégral, DRC
  12. Association pour la Promotion de la Culture Islamique, Defense des Droits des Enfants et des Femmes, Guinea
  13. Association pour les Droits de l’Homme et l’Univers Carcéral, DRC
  14. Association Congolaise pour l’Accès à la Justice, DRC
  15. Association des Jeunes pour la Promotion des Droits de l’Homme, Burundi
  16. Arry Organization for Human Rights, Egypt
  17. Borno Coalition for Democracy and Progress, Nigeria
  18. Cameroon Coalition for the ICC, Cameroon
  19. Caucus des Femmes, DRC
  20. Cause Commune, DRC
  21. Centre d’Ecoute de Femmes et des Enfant, Guinea
  22. Centre d’Études sur la Justice et la Résolution 1325, DRC
  23. Centre d’Initiatives pour le Développement Intégral, DRC
  24. Centre de Recherche sur l’Environnement, la Démocratie et les Droits de l’Homme, DRC
  25. Centre d’Observation des Droits de l’Homme et d’Assistance Sociale, DRC
  26. Center for Peace and Development Effectivenes, Liberia
  27. Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law, Sierra Leone
  28. Centre for Democracy and Development, Nigeria
  29. Centre for Gender Education, Nigeria
  30. Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, Malawi
  31. Children Education Society, Tanzania
  32. Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, Synod of Livingstonia, Malawi
  33. Civil Liberties Committee, Malawi
  34. Civil Resource Development and Documentation Centre, Nigeria
  35. Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, Nigeria
  36. Club Union Africaine – Côte d’Ivoire, Côte d’Ivoire
  37. Coalition Burundaise pour la CPI, Burundi
  38. Coalition Centrafricaine pour la CPI, Central African Republic
  39. Coalition for the International Criminal Court, with offices in Benin and the DRC
  40. Coalition Ivoirienne des Défenseurs des Droits Humains, Côte d’Ivoire
  41. Coalition Ivoirienne pour la Cour Pénale Internationale, Côte d’Ivoire
  42. Coalition of Eastern NGOs, Nigeria
  43. Collectif des Organisations des Jeunes Solidaires au Congo, DRC
  44. Concerned Christian Community, Liberia
  45. Congo Peace Network, DRC
  46. Connecting Gender for Development, Nigeria
  47. Conseil National des Techniciens en Développement Rural du Congo, DRC
  48. Consortium des Organisations de Jeunes pour la Défense des Victimes de Violences en Guinée, Guinea
  49. Coordination des Organisations de Défense des Droits Humains, Guinea
  50. Ditshwanelo – The Botswana Centre for Human Rights, Botswana
  51. East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, Uganda
  52. Egi Women Council, Nigeria
  53. Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Egypt
  54. Encadrement des Femmes Indigènes et des Ménages Vulnérables, DRC
  55. Espace Humanitaire de Côte d’Ivoire, Côte d’Ivoire
  56. Fastlane Women Organizations, Nigeria
  57. FIDA Nigeria, Nigeria
  58. Fédération Internationale des Droits de l’Homme, with offices in Kenya
  59. Fondation Point de Vue des Jeunes Africains pour Développement, DRC
  60. Groupe d’Appui-Conseils aux Réalisations pour le Développement Endogène, DRC
  61. Groupe d’Associations de Défense des Droits de l’Homme et de la Paix, DRC
  62. Groupe Justice et Libération, DRC
  63. Groupe Lotus, DRC
  64. Global Justice and Research Project, Liberia
  65. Human Rights Concern, Eritrea
  66. Human Rights Consultative Committee, Malawi
  67. Human Rights Law Service, Nigeria
  68. Human Rights Monitor, Nigeria
  69. Human Rights Network – Uganda, Uganda
  70. Human Rights Network for Journalists – Uganda, Uganda
  71. Human Rights Social Development and Environmental Foundation, Nigeria
  72. Human Rights Watch, with offices in the DRC, Kenya, Rwanda, and South Africa
  73. Initiative Congolaise pour la Justice et la Paix, DRC
  74. Institut de Recherche sur la Démocratie et l’Etat de Droit, Guinea
  75. International Center for Policy and Conflict, Kenya
  76. International Commission of Jurists, Kenya
  77. International Crime in Africa Programme, Institute for Security Studies, South Africa
  78. International Center for Transitional Justice, with offices in Côte d’Ivoire, DRC, Kenya, andnn Uganda
  79. International Society for Civil Liberties & the Rule of Law, Nigeria
  80. Jinsiangu, Kenya
  81. Justice Plus, DRC
  82. Kebetkache Women Development and Resource Centre, Nigeria
  83. Kenya Human Rights Commission, Kenya
  84. Kenyans for Peace with Truth and Justice Coalition, Kenya
  85. Kituo Cha Sheria, Kenya
  86. Lawyers for Human Rights, South Africa
  87. Legal Resources Centre, South Africa
  88. Ligue des Électeurs, DRC
  89. Ligue Ivoirienne des Droits de l’Homme, Côte d’Ivoire
  90. Man and Water Survival Foundation, Nigeria
  91. Media Foundation for West Africa, Ghana
  92. Mouvement des Peuples pour l’Education aux Droits Humains – Côte d’Ivoire, Côte d’Ivoire
  93. Mouvement Ivoirien des Droits Humains, Côte d’Ivoire
  94. Mouvement pour la Defense des Droits de l’Homme et d’Action Humanitaire, Central African Republic
  95. National Coalition on Affirmative Action, Nigeria
  96. National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders – Kenya, Kenya
  97. Niger Delta Women for Justice, Nigeria
  98. Nigeria Coalition for the ICC, Nigeria
  99. Observatoire Congolais des Droits Humains, DRC
  100. Ogbakiri Women Peace Forum, Nigeria
  101. Ogoni Solidarity Forum, Nigeria.
  102. Plateforme Nationale des Citoyens Unis pour le Développement, Guinea
  103. Promotion de la Justice Réparatrice des Initiatives de Développement Intégral, DRC
  104. Radiant Women Association, Nigeria
  105. Regional Associates for Community Initiatives, Uganda
  106. Regroupement des Acteurs Ivoiriens des Droits Humains, Côte d’Ivoire
  107. Rencontre Africaine pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme, Senegal
  108. Renforcement Local des Associations et des Initiatives Sociales, Guinea
  109. Réseau des Associations des Droits de l’Homme du Sud Kivu, DRC
  110. Réseau Equitas Côte d’Ivoire, Côte d’Ivoire
  111. Réseau National des ONGs pour le Développement de la Femme en République Démocratique du Congo, DRC
  112. Rése u Provincial des ONGDH au Congo, DRC
  113. Réseau Provincial des ONG des Droits de l’Homme de la Ville de Kinshasa, DRC
  114. Rescue Alternatives Liberia, Liberia
  115. Rumuekpe Women Prayer Warriors, Nigeria
  116. Rural Health and Women Development, Nigeria
  117. Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, Nigeria
  118. SOS Exclusion, Côte d’Ivoire
  119. Southern African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes, Zambia
  120. Southern Africa Litigation Centre, South Africa
  121. SPEAK Human Rights and Environmental Initiative, Mauritius
  122. Sudan Democracy First Group, Sudan
  123. Syndicat des Travailleurs de l’Enseignement du Burundi, Burundi
  124. Tombe-Elago Law Firm, Namibia
  125. Toges Noires, DRC
  126. Trade Union Confederation of Sierra Leone, Sierra Leone
  127. Transformation Resource Centre, Lesotho
  128. TrustAfrica, Senegal
  129. Uganda Coalition for the International Criminal Court, Uganda
  130. Uganda Victims’ Foundation, Uganda
  131. Union d’Actions pour les Initiatives de Développement, DRC
  132. Vision Sociale, DRC
  133. West African Bar Association, Nigeria
  134. West African Civil Society Forum, Nigeria
  135. West Africa Network for Peacebuilding – Nigeria, Nigeria
  136. Women and Youths Empowerment, Nigeria
  137. Women Environmental Programme, Nigeria
  138. Women Information Network, Nigeria
  139. Women, Law and Development Centre, Nigeria
  140. Women’s Right to Education Programme, Nigeria

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