African heads of state have decided that sitting heads of state be granted immunity from prosecution at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at a summit called to deliberate the African Union (AU) ’s deteriorating relationship with the international body.

The current impasse was precipitated by the court’s prosecution of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy William Ruto, both on trial for post-electoral violence in 2007 that led to the deaths of almost 1200 Kenyans.

“We have sent a strong signal to the international community,” said Ethiopian Prime Minister, and Chairperson of the African Union, Hailemariam Desalegn, in his concluding remarks, “We would like our concerns to be heard loud and clear.”

The meeting also resolved that no serving AU head of state or government official would be required to appear before any international tribunal during their term of office, and called upon African ICC signatories to push for amendments to the Rome Statute, the 1998 legal accord that undergirds ICC. Thirty-four of Africa’s 54 nations are signatories to the Statute.

These decisions are in contravention of ICC provisions that specifically deny immunity to heads of state and require the accused to be present through the course of the trial, but indicate the AU’s willingness to work with the court on a reciprocal basis, summit delegates said.

“It is critical that we remain within the legal framework of the Rome Statutes,” said African Union Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma in her opening remarks, even as she noted that national and international laws in many Western countries guarantee immunity for sitting heads of state.

Contact group

The AU will also set up a five member contact group to lobby the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to defer Mr. Kenyatta and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s cases for one year.

“Our goal is not, and should not, be a crusade against the ICC, but a solemn call for the organisation to take Africa’s concerns seriously,” said Mr. Desalegn. He added that African countries need to “balance justice and reconciliation in complex conflict situations”.

In an attempt to prevent similar crises in the future, the AU also urged that its members consult the continental body before referring cases to the ICC.

The AU has thrown its weight behind Mr. Kenyatta’s request that the UNSC defer his trial for a period of one year under Article 16 of the Rome Statute.

Tedros Ghebreyesus, chairperson of the executive council of the African Union, said they expected that Mr. Kenyatta’s trial, scheduled for next month, would be postponed while the UNSC hears his application for deferment.

“If that is not met, President Kenyatta should not appear until the request we have made is answered,” Mr. Tedros said.

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