African Union Leaders Vote To Give Themselves Immunity, Because What A Great Idea

If you heard about plans in the works to establish a new continent-wide court system in Africa, called the African Court of Justice and Human Rights, you'd probably think it was good news, right? Well, in some ways it might be, but here's something that doesn't instill much confidence: a summit of African leaders gave themselves immunity from any war crimes charges brought by the new court, as well as charges on crimes against humanity and genocide. The assembled leaders passed an amendment to the court's existing protocols to ensure these protections on Friday, at an African Union summit in Equatorial Guinea.

The problem with this, is... well, pretty obvious. It should probably be the first rule of establishing a court across several countries that nobody is above the law, much less laws barring the kind of heinous crimes that the leaders moved to shield themselves from. The protections may go beyond just the sitting-leaders of African states, however — the document detailing the agreements struck at the summit, according to the AP, also mentions "senior officials," which could broaden the scope of the issue significantly.

The vote provoked a blunt message from Amnesty International, who alleged that journalists were not allowed access when the amendment was being considered. Said Amnesty International's Netsanet Belay, as quoted by the AP:

At a time when the African continent is struggling to ensure that there is accountability for serious human-rights violations and abuses, it is impossible to justify this decision which undermines the integrity of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights, even before it becomes operational.
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What It Would Mean For Them To Have Immunity

The stakes of such an immunity, obviously, would be very high. Beyond the legal troubles already being faced by two African leaders on trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague — the ICC has launched more cases in Africa than in all other countries combined, a laser-like focus which has spurred controversy — there are others right now who could one day reasonably face these kinds of charges.

For a prime example, you needn't look further than Uganda, where President Yoweri Museveni has been in power for the last 28 years. In 2014, he personally advocated for and signed into law the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act, a bluntly and accurately named law. It was authored by a fundamentalist Christian Ugandan MP, David Bahati.

Bahati's original draft of the bill prescribed the death penalty for "aggravated homosexuality." By 2013, with widespread international media attention swarming, that provision was dropped in favor of life imprisonment. Being thrown in a cell for the rest of you life because of your sexual orientation — sounds like a crime against humanity, no?

The full human cost of the law may go beyond just the people swept up by the prison system, to boot. A report by Sexual Minorities Uganda claims a staggering 750 to 1900 percent increase in attacks against LGBT Ugandans.

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But He'll Face No Justice

Under this freshly-minted amendment, Museveni would be safe and sound from any prosecution over his role in signing the law, and subjugating so many innocent people. This is not to say he alone bears the responsibility, as the influence of American evangelicals on Uganda's culture of virulent anti-gay attitudes, and indeed the law itself, is well-documented by journalist and author Jeff Sharlet.

But so long as Museveni remains in power — the amendment applies only to sitting leaders — he'll be able to rest knowing that the African Court of Justice and Human Rights isn't going to come knocking on his door.