**NEW YORK, October 13, 2016—**Amid deteriorating human rights conditions in the country, the lower house of Burundi’s National Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of withdrawing from the Rome Statute, the treaty that created the world’s first permanent criminal court to investigate and prosecute the world’s worst crimes and an international system to fight impunity. The bill still must be approved by the upper house and then be signed by the president, triggering a year-long withdrawal process from the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Most recently, the country slid into political crisis after Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza won a third term in an election that many have called unconstitutional. Since April 2015, an estimated 564 have been killed and more than 260,000 have fled. The African Union has been among those to criticize Nkurunziza’s third term.
“Burundi should reconsider this ill-conceived decision, which undermines efforts at the national level to bring justice, peace, and stability to the country,” said ICTJ President David Tolbert. “The vote is particularly troubling given Burundi’s clear unwillingness and lack of capacity to prosecute those most responsible for crimes during the recent violence and before.”
The passage of the draft law comes months after the ICC, tasked with trying serious crimes when states are unwilling or unable to do so themselves, said it will investigate violence sparked by Nkurunziza’s re-election, including killings, imprisonment, torture, sexual violence, and enforced disappearances.
Some in the Burundian government, including vice president Gaston Sindimwo, have accused the ICC of plotting to harm the country and violate the rights of Africans. The charge arises from the perception, promoted by some African states, that the ICC unjustifiably focuses on African situations and disproportionately indicts political and rebel leaders.
“The Burundi government has done a great disservice to its citizens, especially victims, by adopting this decision which uses the false accusations of the court’s ‘anti-African’ bias to avoid the possibility of justice being done,” said Tolbert.
While nine of the ten situations now before the ICC are from Africa, five result from the Governments referring their own situations to the ICC. Two situations were referred to the ICC by the UN Security Council, which includes Darfur. One voluntarily accepted the ICC’s jurisdiction. The ICC acted on its own initiative in only two African countries: in Kenya, only after this country failed to initiate domestic prosecutions and in Cote D’Ivoire where the State voluntarily declared acceptance of ICC jurisdiction.
There are currently ten countries under preliminary examination by the ICC, only four of them are African nations, including Burundi.
Yet, at the heart of the ICC system is the idea that the courts at the national level, first and foremost, should deal with cases of serious crimes. The ICC only deals with cases under very limited circumstances.
“Justice and accountability in Africa demands that African countries work to build their own capacities to bring perpetrators to justice and strengthen the ICC, not undermine it,” said Tolbert. “This vote sets a dangerous precedent and we call on the African Union to act on its declared commitment to accountability for serious crimes in response to Burundi’s move.”
Burundi ratified the Rome Statute on September 21, 2004. The ICC’s preliminary examination of the Burundi situation was announced on April 25, 2016.
Refik Hodzic, ICTJ Communications Director E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Tel: +1 917-637-3853
PHOTO: Members of Burundi's National Assembly at voting session on October 12, 2016. (Onesphore Nibigira/Getty Images)