At his inauguration ceremony on May 12, 2016 Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, whilst sharing the stage with Sudan’s President Omar-al Bashir, against whom there was an outstanding International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant, said the ICC was “a bunch of useless people.”
“When they started, we used to take the ICC serious but not anymore. They are a bunch of useless people who should not be taken serious. We have no business with the ICC and so we welcome our brother from Sudan President al-Bashir,” Museveni said at the ceremony.
President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan was on a three-day visit in Uganda despite an international Criminal Court arrest warrant hanging over his head.
Another East African leader, Rwanda President Paul Kagame, promised to help Omar al-Bashir had fight ICC. In December 2017, Omar al-Bashir and his Rwandan counterpart, Paul Kagame, agreed to jointly confront the International Criminal Court, accusing it of bias against African leaders.
But just a couple of years later Bashir is in the dock in Khartoum battling corruption charges and he will soon be shipped to the Hague for crimes against humanity. Neither President Museveni nor President Kagame is prepared to protect Bashir from ICC as earlier promised.
Earlier, in 2008, President Kagame called the ICC a “fraudulent institution “that is “made for Africans and poor countries” who did not realize what they were signing up for when they ratified the Rome Statute.
In fact, Rwanda declined signing the Rome Statute making her the only East African nation immune to ICC, and maybe Burundi that became the first country in history to withdraw from the Rome Statute having applied to leave the court in 2016.
Rwanda is not a state party to the tribunal of war crimes but has the obligation as a member of the United Nations to cooperate with the court.
Bashir falsely believed his compatriots would protect or atleast shield him from ICC, which issued him with arrest warrants in 2009 and 2010 on charges of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity in the Sudanese region of Darfur.
Sudan’s transitional government recently passed a law enabling Bashir’s transfer to ICC and has promised to handover the longtime ruler to the war crimes court.
Al-Bashir, 77, has been wanted by The Hague-based ICC for more than 10 years over charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Sudanese region.
The United Nations says 300,000 people were killed and 2.5 million displaced in the Darfur conflict, which erupted in the vast western region in 2003.
The Sudan Foreign Minister Mariam al-Mahdi has said his government decided to hand over wanted officials to the ICC.
The cabinet’s decision to hand him over came during a visit by ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan, but it still needs the approval of Sudan’s ruling sovereign council, comprised of military and civilian figures.
On Wednesday, Khan met the sovereign council’s leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, its deputy chair. And Daglo said Sudan “is prepared to cooperate with the ICC.”
Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who also met Khan, on Wednesday said “Sudan’s commitment to seek justice is not only to abide by its international commitments, but it comes out of a response to the people’s demands”.
Last week, Sudan’s cabinet voted to ratify the Rome Statute, a crucial move seen as one step towards al-Bashir potentially facing trial.
The US State Department spokesman Ned Price praised Sudan’s decision, saying handing over al-Bashir “would be a major step for Sudan in the fight against decades of impunity”.
In December, Washington removed Sudan from its list of “state sponsors of terrorism”, and later also pledged to clear the country’s arrears with the World Bank.
Al-Bashir, who ruled Sudan with an iron fist for 30 years before being deposed amid popular protests in 2019, is behind bars in Khartoum’s high-security Kober prison.
He is jailed alongside two other former top officials facing ICC war crimes charges – ex-Defence Minister Abdel Rahim Mohamed Hussein and Ahmed Haroun, a former governor of South Kordofan.
The Darfur war broke out in 2003 when non-Arab rebels took up arms complaining of systematic discrimination by al-Bashir’s Arab-dominated government.
Khartoum responded by unleashing the notorious Popular Defence Forces militia or Janjaweed, recruited from among the region’s nomadic peoples.
Human rights groups have long accused al-Bashir and his former aides of using a scorched earth policy, raping, killing, looting and burning villages.
Al-Bashir was removed by the military and detained in April 2019 after four months of mass nationwide protests against his rule.
The former strongman was convicted in December 2019 for corruption, and has been on trial in Khartoum since July 2020 for the 1989 coup which brought him to power. He faces the death penalty if found guilty.
Now that Bashir is a done deal international focus is likely to shift to the two other East African leaders; Presidents; Museveni and Kagame, both currently defined as dictators.
Museveni is largely accused of violence in his country that has resulted into the death of hundreds of people. Whereas Kagame is accused of gross human rights abuses in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In December 2016, a group of Ugandan parliamentarians drafted and submitted a petition to the ICC asking for an investigation into possible atrocities by government security forces.
The petition called for the investigation of a November 2016 incident in which hundreds of heavily armed Ugandan army and police personnel stormed the palace of King Charles Wesley Mumbere, the cultural leader of the Rwenzururu Kingdom, located in Kasese District, Western Uganda.
The raid resulted in the death of more than 100 civilians, including palace guards, women, and children. Hundreds more, including six youths, were arrested and charged with treason, terrorism, and murder.
The incident was the climax of a long-standing dispute between the Ugandan government and the Rwenzururu Kingdom.
The petition called for the prosecution of President Museveni as the commander in chief of Uganda’s armed forces, Gen Peter Elwelu, who commanded military forces, and Asuman Mugyenyi, who commanded the police forces.
Another petition was launched in November 2019 by Uganda’s political opposition under an umbrella body referred to as the Citizens’ Rights Bureau.
This second petition cites several alleged crimes, including suppression, torture, and extra-judicial killing of Ugandans; invasion of Parliament and desecration or abrogation of the national constitution; use of the state security apparatus and militia groups to persecute, dehumanize, and humiliate political opponents, members of civil society organizations, and the citizenry; enforced disappearances; and curtailment of civil liberties.
ICC, however, recently ruled that they would not try the massacre of civilians in Rwenzururu Kingdom because the military was dealing with an armed group whose members were killed in self-defence.
But again, early this year President Museveni was dragged to ICC. During the January 7th press conference on Zoom former presidential candidate Robert Ssentamu Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine and his lawyers announced they had filed a complaint against President Museveni at the International Criminal Court.
Lawyers acting for the victims of a wave of abductions and torture by security forces in Uganda named senior military commanders, including the president’s son, Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, in a complaint to the international criminal court.
Bobi Wine’s ICC filing focuses on a state crackdown on protests after he was arrested in November 2020 that left more than 50 people dead, which the opposition candidate and his lawyer said is proof of “systematic government action” amounting to crimes against humanity.
The Ugandan military repeatedly denied responsibility for any abuses, and President Museveni in a national address in February dismissed allegations that his forces had illegally detained civilians, saying the army was “a disciplined force” and that his party “does not kill” its opponents.
Although President Museveni publicly claims not to be worried about ICC, these petitions indicate a bleak future for the Ugandan leader.
And considering that ICC has successfully prosecuted former Lord’s Resistance Army commander Dominic Ongwen it is very much possible that in the near future ICC could succumb to pressure from Ugandans to look into Mr Museveni’s activities to position itself as an impartial court.
The Netherlands-based court found Dominic Ongwen, 45, guilty of 61 charges relating to crimes including murder, widespread rape, sexual enslavement, abducting children, torture and pillaging carried out in the early 2000s.
Kagame neither safe
President Kagame is also not safe from the court although there has been some silence from the international community recently.
But in 2012, the head of the US war crimes office warned Rwanda’s leaders, including President Paul Kagame, that they could face prosecution at the international criminal court for arming groups responsible for atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Stephen Rapp, who at the time was leader of the US Office of Global Criminal Justice, said the Rwandan leadership may be open to charges of “aiding and abetting” crimes against humanity in a neighbouring country – actions similar to those for which the former Liberian president, Charles Taylor, was jailed for 50 years by an international court in May.
Rapp’s warning followed a United Nations report on Rwandan military support for M23. The UN experts said they had “found substantial evidence attesting to support from Rwandan officials to armed groups operating in the eastern DRC”, including shipping weapons and money to M23 in breach of a UN arms embargo and other sanctions.
The UN report also accused Rwanda of shielding the M23 leader Bosco Ntaganda, known as the Terminator, who was wanted by the ICC for war crimes including the forced recruitment of child soldiers. Ntaganda was successfully prosecuted by the ICC.
Although, the West has nevertheless generally preferred to ignore Kagame’s horrible human rights record, focusing instead on Rwanda’s supposed “economic miracle” since he took power, it does not mean that the Rwandan leader is safe.
In August 2012, Rwandan and Congolese groups opposed to Mr Kagame’s rule protested outside the International Criminal Court requesting that the Rwandan leader be investigated for war crimes for allegedly backing rebel groups in eastern Congo.
Earlier, in 2008, Judge Fernando Andreu of Spain’s National Court accused 40 Rwandan military and political leaders on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and terrorism which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, including nine Spaniards. Most of the indicted officers belonged to the contingent that protected Kagame during a four year guerrilla war.
Spain’s high court has in the past prosecuted South American leaders, including former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, on human rights charges.
In 2006, a French judge requested the United Nations that President Kagame stands trial at the UN war crimes tribunal for being responsible for the downing in Kigali on 6 April 1994 of an aircraft carrying the then presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, Juvénal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira, an incident that sparked the subsequent genocide in Rwanda.
However, the charges were dropped later in 2012, when a French judicial probe into the shooting down of the Habyarimana’s jet exonerated seven allies of Kagame.
The decision by France to drop the charges, which was political in nature, intended to amend relations between the two countries especially after Rwanda joined the Commonwealth countries and changed from being francophone to Anglophone.
Another thorn in Kagame flesh is the scandalous prosecution of international celebrity Paul Rusesabagina, which is also likely to raise international pressure to re-awaken indictments against the Rwandan leader for gross human rights abuses.
Rusesabagina, who was kidnapped by Kagame’s security from Dubai on his way to Burundi, has been tried with 20 other alleged members of a rebel group called the National Liberation Forces (FLN), on charges of terrorism and murder after the group reportedly carried out a number deadly attacks in Rwanda in recent years.
Paul Rusesabagina was depicted in the film “Hotel Rwanda” as a hero for saving more than 1,200 people during genocide in Rwanda in 1994.
The “Hotel Rwanda” hero pleaded not guilty and has not been appearing in court for months. Prosecution has requested for a life sentence to be handed to Rusesabagina while seeking 25 years in jail for each of the other FLN suspects and compensation of 80 victims. The Rwanda High Court Chamber of International and Transboundary Crimes will deliver its verdict on August 20, 2021
Therefore, just as Bashir basked in deception believing that the International Court would never touch him, it is possible that both Museveni and Kagame could end up on the same path to prosecution unless the two leaders face reality and redeem themselves before it is too late.