John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Malawi: Justice versus Impunity and the African Union

by Guest Blogger for John Campbell
June 14, 2012

Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir attends the 16th African Union Summit, in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, January 30, 2011. (Thomas Mukoya/Courtesy Reuters)


This is a guest post by Asch Harwood. Asch is the Council on Foreign Relations Africa program research associate.

Malawi has decided not to host July’s African Union (AU) summit because of demands that Sudan’s al-Bashir be permitted to attend. It’s a heroic effort toward ending impunity on the continent.

Despite explicit statements that Malawi’s new president, Joyce Banda, was concerned about offending international donors, her position in support of the ICC’s arrest warrant for al-Bashir is principled. Malawi is a signatory to the Rome statute and intends to fulfill its obligations.

Of course, when your country’s budget is dependent on aid (40 percent before donors cut off support last year), international opinion is a real concern. But as Peter Fabricius writes, “(Banda) probably intended to mollify Malawians, who are very annoyed at losing the summit and the business opportunities that would have gone with it.”

As any Africa watcher knows, one of the biggest holds on sub-Saharan economic and political development is impunity. So any champion, particularly one in a position to benefit from impunity, should be supported accordingly.

The AU does face a conundrum though, which can easily be lost on ICC supporters. As Simon Allison writes, due to AU’s own internal governance, all heads of state must be invited.

But Malawi, rightly, has chosen to value its commitments to justice over AU rules, even if it makes her unpopular in Africa. “By taking the opposite view, Banda – a relatively young, female leader in a group of old, grumpy men – is openly defying the African consensus, something sure to make her unpopular amongst her counterparts,” notes Allison.

While it will certainly lead to some grumbling, I doubt Malawi’s decision will do any serious long-term diplomatic damage. And, in turn, perhaps other African countries will follow suit to help bring al-Bashir before the ICC.

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