African leaders tackle continent’s challenges

African heads of state on Thursday discussed a drastic new decision against the International Criminal Court that would in practice give Sudan’s president impunity from prosecution for war crimes by the ICC, a draft document at the AU summit showed.

African officials said the surprise new draft was circulated by Libya, which is hosting the 13th African Union summit in the coastal town of Sirte, east of the capital, Tripoli.

The draft says the African Union “deeply regrets” that the United Nations ignored its previous demand for the ICC in The Hague to postpone its arrest warrant against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for crimes in Darfur.

In consequence, the draft decision obtained by The AP provides that AU countries “shall not cooperate” with the ICC “for the arrest and surrender of African indicted personalities.”

If adopted, the decision could be a powerful blow to prosecuting African officials for war crimes.

“This is an insult to the 30 AU states member to the ICC, it basically orders them to flout their legal obligations,” said Reed Brody, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch.

He said African signatories to the court refused a similar decision in June, but that Libya appeared to be pushing for it to adopted.

Heads of states convened at AU summits reach their decision behind closed doors and by consensus, not vote, and it was not clear if the new measure would be approved Thursday.

“The question is whether Libya will be heavy handed” in pushing the decision through, Brody said on the sidelines of the summit.

Libya was one the first countries to ignore the ICC and host al-Bashir despite the international warrant against him issued in March. Al-Bashir is accused by the ICC prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity for masterminding Sudanese government violence that has led to the death of some 300,000 people in Darfur since 2003.

Sudan’s acting Foreign Minister, El Samany El Wasila, hailed the new draft AU decision Thursday.

“I think it will be adopted, it will be Africa’s confirmation that the ICC is politically motivated and should be ignored,” El Samany El Wasila told The Associated Press.

El Wasila said the international court had proved it was biased by only acting against Africans “while it ignores Israel for Gaza or (former U.S. President George W.) Bush for Iraq.”

The draft decision appeared to contradict assurances by the AU’s executive chairman, Jean Ping, that the African Union would not reach hard decisions against the ICC.

Ping had said Wednesday that the AU would certainly not reach “dramatic or binding conclusions” for African countries who are party to the ICC.

“Though it is true that African heads of state are tired are being the only ones targeted” by the ICC, Ping said.

Other topics discussed at the AU summit Thursday included improving security across the continent and fighting piracy and civil war in Somalia. Libya, meanwhile, was spearheading a drive to lay the groundwork for an eventual United States of Africa.

The heads of states will consider a decision to change the AU executive bodies from a “Commission” into an “Authority.” The goal is to simplify the African Union to create a more powerful and cohesive body, seen as a buildup for what Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi ultimately envisions as a common federal government for Africa.

But some of the continent’s wealthier nations, led by Nigeria and South Africa, appear to be resisting the move. African diplomats say there are worries the new structure could become overbearing, especially given Gadhafi’s historical tendency to intervene across Africa.

The other main debates Thursday focused on preventing election-related disputes and violent conflicts in Africa, as well as “the prevention of unconstitutional changes of governments.” Africa recently has experienced an increase in coups d’etat, from Madagascar to Mauritania and Guinea-Bissau, as well as ongoing turmoil in Zimbabwe and violence in Sudan and Niger.

Diplomats also say it is likely the AU summit will agree to boost the numbers of the 4,300-strong AU peacekeeping force struggling to contain piracy and civil war in Somalia.

Louis Michel, the European Union’s Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, said the rules of engagement should be strengthened to give peacekeepers greater leeway to use firepower.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.