African nations press UN Council to suspend Kenya case

African countries will put forward a UN Security Council resolution seeking a suspension of International Criminal Court (ICC) charges against Kenyan leaders, officials said Thursday.

An African ministerial delegation announced the move after meeting with Security Council envoys to press for the deferral of charges against President Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice President William Ruto.

The meeting went ahead as the ICC postponed the start of Kenyatta’s trial until February 5.

The Kenyan president and vice president are accused over political violence after a 2007 presidential election in which more than 1,000 people died. Both deny the charges.

The African delegation — with foreign ministers from Kenya, Ethiopia, Mauritania, Senegal, Namibia and Uganda — called on the council to use its powers to suspend the case for a year.

Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who led the delegation, said the ICC trials risked destabilizing Kenya.

The minister highlighted strife in Somalia, the September attack by Somali militants on a Nairobi shopping mall and tensions between Sudan and South Sudan.

“We are asking for deferral because this is a serious threat to international peace and security in addition to our region, and we should prevent any havoc from happening in Kenya,” Ghebreyesus told reporters. “We don’t need another destabilized country in that part of the world.”

He said African members on the Security Council, led by Rwanda, would propose the resolution “very soon.”

African diplomats met later to discuss the resolution, which a Rwandan mission spokesman said was ready.

Suspension under Rome Statute

The Security Council can suspend ICC trials for up to a year under Article 16 of the Rome Statute which created the ICC.

But the 15-nation Security Council is divided on the African request and gave no firm reply to the AU delegation. Two previous Kenyan requests for a suspension also went unanswered.

Seven council members who are also among the 122 Rome Statute signatories have doubts about allowing the deferral for what are essentially political reasons.

Others like Russia and China back the demand, first made by an African Union summit this month.

“I think the delegation of the African Union made a very powerful case in favor of deferral because of the very difficult circumstances in the region,” said Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin.

The Kenya case is the latest and most serious to cause a backlash in Africa, where some countries say the continent has been unfairly singled out for ICC investigations.

All of the eight investigations officially launched by the war crimes court involve Africa. But most were requested by African nations themselves.

European nations are most reluctant to allow a deferral fearing it will become a precedent for other leaders who may face charges, diplomats said.

But they also acknowledge that greater attention will have to be paid to the African complaints.

“A number of council members know full well that a delay of a year could be tantamount to a dismissal of the cases given the intensive witness intimidation that has been going on in Kenya and that the Kenyan authorities must cease immediately,” said Richard Dicker, justice specialist for Human Rights Watch.

Dicker said most African ICC members support the court however. “This is a serious challenge to the court,” he added. “But this is a time for members not to give in to pressure from countries with dubious reasons to avoid charges.”

African countries will also seek changes to trial procedures when Rome Statute members hold their annual meeting in The Hague in November. This could include allowing giving evidence by video-conference and other measures, so that the Kenyan leaders do not have to leave their country.