President Robert Mugabe’s fickle relationship with the West has once again been put to test by the veteran ruler’s abrasive call for African nations to pullout of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The latest call has been stoked by a failed attempt by the ICC to arrest Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir in South Africa last month when he attended an African Union (AU) summit.
While Zimbabwe is not an ICC signatory, Harare is using its chairmanship of both the AU and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to influence those that are signatories to withdraw from the ICC.
Coming at a time when the country is hoping to reengage the western world in the hope of salvaging its tottering economy, opinion is split on how President Mugabe’s call could impact on the re-engagement effort.
On the one hand are those who fear it could result in the west shutting doors on Zimbabwe.
Yet others believe these latest salvos will have little, if any, effect on relations.
Lawton Hikwa, an academic at the National University of Science and Technology, said the debacle with the ICC was not new at all.
Indeed, there has been a feeling that countries outside Europe are being targeted and the ICC has moved away from its initial objectives.
African leaders argue that it appears the ICC was established to bring to book only African leaders because none from the west have appeared before it.
There is thus talk for the establishment of an equivalent to the ICC on the African soil to try European leaders.
“Zimbabwe idealistically even if it pushes for a pullout from the ICC, was never a signatory to the Rome Statute, so it is neither here nor there in terms of what it says and how this impacts relations with the West. It is our neighbours, South Africa where this debate finds efficacy as it signed to the Rome Statute,” said Hikwa.
The South African Litigation Centre (SALC) brought a petition to the South African High Court that South Africa, as a signatory to the Rome Statute through which the ICC is constituted, was obliged to arrest Bashir who is wanted for alleged war crimes.
But even before that request was brought by the SALC, growing perception among African countries has always been that the ICC, based in the Hague in Netherlands, has had a bone to chew against African leaders, while letting their compatriots from the West go scot-free on alleged crimes against humanity.
This perception came under intense spotlight at the war crimes trial of Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto in 2014.
The pair was accused by the ICC of being the masterminds of the violence which rocked Kenya in the aftermath of the 2007 elections, leaving thousands of people dead.
Although the charges against Kenyatta have since been dropped by the ICC — that criminal proceedings were instituted against him, left a sour taste in the mouths of many leaders on the continent.
In 2012, the ICC sentenced former Liberian leader, Charles Taylor to 50 years in jail for his role in atrocities committed in Sierra Leone during its civil war in the 1990s.
And yet former United States president George Bush who led an invasion into Iraq in 2003 with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair have never been called by the ICC to explain their actions which caused thousands of deaths, critics say.
The latest standoff against the ICC by African countries is paYet others believe these latest salvos will have little, if any, efferticularly significant as President Mugabe holds the chairmanship of the AU.
His position affords him overt influence, as the veteran ruler is held in high esteem in many parts of the continent for his pan-African agenda.
He is also revered for his wartime liberation credentials and hardline stance against the West.
That President Mugabe would trash the ICC has always been expected because he has always viewed the court as a symbol of Western influence on the continent.
Bryan Rostron, a journalist and author in South Africa said the mantra of African solutions for African problems would remain a mocking slogan as long as the AU fails to fund itself and shield dictators rather than protecting ordinary citizens.
Nearly 70 percent of the AU’s budget comes from foreign donors.
“Legitimate questions about the impartiality of the ICC are being hotly debated… The fact is, though, that South Africa signed up to the ICC while the most powerful countries, such as the US, Russia and China, have not. To be conducting this debate only after the SA government has defied its own courts to help President Bashir escape is absurd,” said Rostron.
“The pullout threat from the ICC and its successful discrediting by African countries will automatically put dictators at ease. This is unwarranted in a continent teeming with victims of recklessly violent politics,” said Vivid Gwede, a political commentator.
“These victims and everyone else in Africa who is a potential victim are the losers. In the case of Africa, we don’t have a human rights court for citizens that actually deal with genocides and tyrants as we would love to see.”
This is not the first time that the country has opposed external judicial processes against independent States as Zimbabwe stood at loggerheads with the Southern African Development Community Tribunal, which eventually led to its disbanding.
The SADC Tribunal made unfavourable judgments against the Zimbabwe government’s controversial land reform programme.
Its disbanding was widely seen by political observers as a move to stump out one of the last remaining avenues for judicial oversight over SADC nations which trash human rights.
A senior official from the ruling African National Congress last week expressed support for South Africa to withdraw from the ICC, signaling that one of Africa’s powerhouse alongside Kenya are not at ease with the operations of the ICC.
“If I was in government, I would say give notice, get out of that, it was not what was envisioned. It is a tool in the hands of the powerful to destroy the weak and it is a court that is focusing on Africa, Eastern Europe and Middle East,” Mantashe, the ANC secretary-general said in a radio interview. “Have nothing to do with that, because it is dangerous.”
Jacob Mafume, a lawyer and an official in the MDC Renewal Team, said there were no African courts to deal with crimes against humanity committed on the continent and it was of concern that Africa would want to pullout without offering an alternative in its place.
“The removal of the ICC is the removal of the only thing that had potential to keep the leaders in check and to deal with them should they deviate despite its imperfections. Where a court is destroyed it is only the criminals who benefit and the population suffers as a result,” he said.