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Opinion: The African myth of 'interference'

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Dirke Köpp
October 14, 2016

Burundi has voted to leave the ICC and has suspended cooperation with the UN Human Rights Office, accusing both of interference. But those who can't take criticism are usually in the wrong, writes Dirke Köpp.

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Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Kurokawa

Burundi, a small nation at the heart of Africa, is cutting itself off from the international community. The country suspended cooperation with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights after making lengthy protests about a report that had been written about it.  The authors of the UN report were declared by Burundi persona non grata.

On Wednesday (12.10.2016), the lower house of the Burundian parliament voted to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC). The justice minister said the court was a means of applying pressure to poor states in order to destabilize them. The vote to withdraw was no surprise. Burundi, which is on the brink of civil war, is now at loggerheads with a large section of the international community. Any criticism leveled against the country is immediately dismissed as a fabrication, or interference in its internal affairs.

Chain reaction

The country's decision to leave the ICC has yet to be confirmed by President Pierre Nkurunziza. Nobody knows whether it will set off a chain reaction of African countries departing from the court. What is certain, however, is that very few African leaders are well disposed towards the ICC. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and the Sudanese dictator Omar al Bashir are two of its more virulent opponents. Both were - or are - the subject of attention by the court's prosecutors. It is therefore hardly astonishing that they don't like the court.

Dirke Köpp Kommentarbild App
Dirke Köpp is head of DW's French for Africa service

African rulers view the court as neocolonialist, anti-African and biased. They speak in this context of acts of interference and conspiracies. They allege that it is only Africans who are in the dock. The fact that the ICC is investigating cases in other parts of the world, such as Iraq, Afghanistan or Ukraine, is never mentioned by African rulers. At almost every African Union summit, there is debate about the ICC and whether every member country on the continent should leave it. So far, such discussions have led nowhere. 

The court may be unpopular with Africa's rulers, but opposition groups can be heard calling on its chief public prosecutor for support. They do not refer to conspiracies or interference, but underline instead their trust in an independent judiciary.

Money as 'interference'

African governments are becoming increasingly fond of talking of "interference." Two examples from this month may suffice to illustrate a trend. Chadian President Idriss Deby, who visited Germany this week, observed in an interview with DW that crises in Africa were - by and large -  triggered by "outside" interference. On the other hand, he is quite willing to accept nine million euros ($9.9 million) from "outside," from Germany, in other words. The Democratic Republic of Congo is embroiled in a diplomatic row with Belgium, allegedly involving interference in internal affairs. The Congolese state could not survive without financial assistance from Belgium and other European partners but this is a fact which Congolese politicians often choose to ignore.

The Burundian government and its supporters also appear to be overlooking an important point. According to the ICC's statutes, a country which leaves the court is still obliged to cooperate in investigations which were launched before its departure. The crisis in Burundi - the violence, the unsolved murders and the disappearance of political opponents - began in April 2015.