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African resistance to the International Criminal Court: Halting the advance of the anti-impunity norm

  • Kurt Mills (a1) and Alan Bloomfield (a2)
  • Please note a correction has been issued for this article.


The creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 1998 marked a substantial advance in the effort to ensure all perpetrators of mass atrocities can be brought to justice. Yet significant resistance to the anti-impunity norm, and the ICC as the implementing institution, has arisen in Africa. The ICC has primarily operated in Africa, and since it sought to indict the sitting Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in 2008 resistance from both individual African states and the African Union has increased substantially. We draw on the concept of ‘norm antipreneurs’, and the broader norm dynamics literature, to analyse how resistance has developed and manifested itself, as well as the potential effects of this resistance on the anti-impunity norm. We conclude that the antipreneur concept helped us structure and organise analysis of the case – suggesting it could be usefully deployed in other similar cases – but that this case also suggests that antipreneurs do not always enjoy substantial defensive advantages. We also conclude that African resistance to the ICC has substantially stalled the advance of the anti-impunity norm, a finding that has significant implications for the wider effort to reduce mass atrocity crimes in the contemporary era.

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Corresponding author

* Correspondence to: Kurt Mills, School of Social Sciences, Scrymgeour Building, University of Dundee, Dundee DD1 4HN, UK. Author’s email:
** Correspondence to: Alan Bloomfield, Room 2.41, School of Social Sciences, The University of Western Australia, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley, Western Australia 6009, Australia. Author’s email:


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1 Rashid Abdi, quoted in Pilling, David, ‘Bungled Kenyan cases spotlight ICC’s image problem’, Business Day (16 April 2016).

2 Thirty others had signed but not ratified.

3 Bassiouni, M. Cherif, ‘Negotiating the Treaty of Rome on the establishment of an International Criminal Court’, Cornell International Law Journal, 32 (1999), pp. 443469 .

4 Scheffer, David J., ‘The United States and the International Criminal Court’, American Journal of International Law, 93:1 (1999), p. 12 .

5 Goldsmith, Jack, ‘The self-defeating International Criminal Court’, University of Chicago Law Review, 70:1 (2003), pp. 9091 .

6 Ramanathan, Usha, ‘India and the ICC’, Journal of International Criminal Justice, 3 (2005), pp. 627634 .

7 Bloomfield, Alan, ‘Norm antipreneurs and theorising resistance to normative change’, Review of International Studies, 42:2 (2016), pp. 310333 .

8 Ibid., p. 312.

9 Ibid., pp. 322–6.

10 Legro, Jeffrey W., ‘The transformation of policy ideas’, American Journal of Political Science, 44:3 (2000), pp. 426429 ; Mahoney, James, ‘Path dependence in historical sociology’, Theory and Society, 29:4 (2000), pp. 507548 .

11 Tsebelis, George, ‘Decision making in political systems: Veto players in presidentialism, parliamentarism, multicameralism and multipartyism’, British Journal of Political Science, 25:3 (1995), pp. 289325 .

12 Bloomfield, ‘Norm antipreneurs’, p. 326.

13 Ibid., pp. 322–3.

14 Ibid., p. 321.

15 Ibid., p. 313, and Acharya, Amitav, ‘The R2P and norm diffusion: Towards a framework of norm circulation’, Global Responsibility to Protect, 5:1 (2013), pp. 466479 ; Epstein, Charlotte, ‘Stop telling us how to behave: Socialization and infantilization?’, International Studies Perspectives, 13:2 (2013), pp. 135145 have argued that much of the norms literature reveals ‘liberal’ bias by implicitly presenting a picture of ‘enlightened/good’ – and usually Western – entrepreneurs promoting, for example, human rights norms against resistance by ‘unenlightened/bad’ actors.

16 Bloomfield, ‘Norm antipreneurs’, pp. 329–31.

17 Acharya, Amitav, ‘How ideas spread’, International Organization, 58:2 (2004), pp. 239275 .

18 Acharya, Amitav, ‘Norm subsidiarity and regional orders: Sovereignty, regionalism, and rule-making in the Third World’, International Studies Quarterly, 55:1 (2011), pp. 96102 .

19 Acharya, Amitav, ‘The R2P and norm diffusion: Towards a framework of norm circulation’, Global Responsibility to Protect, 5:1 (2013), pp. 466479 .

20 Finnemore, Martha and Sikkink, Kathryn, ‘International norm dynamics and political change’, International Organization, 52:4 (1998), p. 891 .

21 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (1998) UNTS vol. 2187 no. 38544, in force 1 July 2002. Article 25 establishes that the ICC has ‘jurisdiction over natural persons’ (who have allegedly committed mass atrocity crimes (Articles 5 to 8)), while Article 27 specifies that the ‘Statute shall apply equally to all persons without any distinction based on official capacity’ and that ‘[i]mmunities or special procedural rules which may attach to the official capacity of a person, whether under national or international law, shall not bar the Court from exercising its jurisdiction’.

22 Fitzmaurice, Gerald, ‘The foundations of the authority of international law and the problem of enforcement’, Modern Law Review, 19:1 (1956), p. 8 .

23 Finnemore, Martha and Toope, Stephen J., ‘Alternatives to “legalization”: Richer views of law and politics’, International Organization, 55:3 (2001), p. 749 .

24 Hoffman, Matthew J., ‘Norms and social constructivism in international relations’, in Robert A. Denemark (ed.), The International Studies Encyclopedia (Blackwell Reference Online, 2014), pp. 13 .

25 Kratochwil, Friedrich and Ruggie, John G., ‘A state of the art on an art of the state’, International Organization, 40:4 (1986), p. 767 .

26 Hurrell, Andrew, ‘Norms and ethics in international relations’, in Walter E. Carlsnaes, Thomas Risse, and Beth A. Simmons (eds), Handbook of International Relations (New York: Sage, 2002), p. 143 .

27 Richard Price treats three factors – ‘support’, ‘compliance’, and ‘third party reactions’ – as relevant to assessing norm-strength: ‘Detecting ideas and their effects’, in Goodwin, Robert E. and Tilly, Charles (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Contextual Political Analysis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

28 For the general theory, see Giddens, Anthony, The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration (Cambridge: Polity Press; 1984). Also see Weldes, Jutta, ‘Constructing national interests’, European Journal of International Relations, 2:3 (1996), pp. 275318 ; and Hoffmann, ‘Norms and social constructivism’, pp. 1–3.

29 Hoffman, ‘Norms and social constructivism’, pp. 7–8.

30 Risse, Thomas, ‘Let’s argue: Communicative action in world politics’, International Organization, 54:1 (2000), p. 7 .

31 Tunks, Michael A., ‘Diplomats or defendants? Defining the future of head-of-state immunity’, Duke Law Journal, 52:3 (2002), pp. 652655 .

32 Germany v. Italy: Greece Intervening, Judgement, ICJ Reports (2012), pp. 99–156.

33 Congo v. Belgium, Judgement, ICJ Reports (2002), pp. 3–34.

34 Tachiona v. Mugabe, US District Court for the Southern District of New York (SDNY), 169 F. Supp. 2nd (2001).

35 Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Philosophical Investigations, Volume II (Oxford: Blackwell, 1953), p. 226 .

36 Schiff, Benjamin N., Building the International Criminal Court (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 2425 .

37 Roht-Arriaza, Naomi, The Pinochet Effect: Transnational Justice (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).

38 Bosco, David, Rough Justice: The International Criminal Court’s Battle to Fix the World, One Prosecution at a Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 2 .

39 By 1 January 2017, 124 states had ratified the Rome Statute. Thirty others had signed but not ratified.

40 Schabas, William A., An Introduction to the International Criminal Court (4 th edn, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 190199 .

41 Annan, Kofi, ‘Two concepts of sovereignty’, The Economist, 352 (1999), pp. 4950 ; Deng, Francis, Sovereignty as Responsibility: Crisis Management in Africa (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1996); Mills, Kurt, Human Rights in the Emerging Global Order: A New Sovereignty? (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998).

42 Mills, Kurt, International Responses to Mass Atrocities in Africa: Responsibility to Protect, Prosecute, and Palliate (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

43 Jalloh, Charles C., Akande, Dapo, and du Plessis, Max, ‘Assessing the African Union concerns about Article 16 of the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court’, African Journal of Legal Studies, 4:1 (2011), p. 14 .

44 African Union, ‘Statement by Mr. Ben Kioko, Legal Counsel of the African Union Commission on Behalf of the AU Commission’, Review Conference of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Kampala, Uganda, 31 May–11 June 2010.

45 Acharya, ‘How ideas spread’.

46 Peskin, Victor, International Justice in Rwanda and the Balkans: Virtual Trials and the Struggle for State Cooperation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

47 Mills, Kurt, ‘“Bashir is dividing us”: Africa and the International Criminal Court’, Human Rights Quarterly, 34:2 (2012), p. 419 .

48 African Union, AU Doc. Assembly/AU/14(XI), ‘Decision on the Report of the Commission on the Abuse of the Principle of Universal Jurisdiction’, 1 July 2008, AU Assembly, 11th Ord. Session.

49 African Union, AU Doc. PSC/PR/BR(CXLI), Press Statement, 11 July 2008, AU Peace and Security Council, 141st Meeting.

50 International Criminal Court, Press Release, ‘ICC Prosecutor Presents Case Against Sudanese President, Hassan Ahmad Al Bashir, for Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes in Darfur’ (14 July 2008), available at: {}.

51 African Union, AU Doc. PSC/MIN/Comm(CXLII)Rev.1, ‘Communiqué of the 142nd Meeting of the Peace and Security Council’, 21 July 2008, AU Peace and Security Council, 142nd meeting, para. 9.

52 African Union, AU Doc. Assembly/AU/Dec.221(XII), ‘Decision on the Application by the International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor for the Indictment of the President of the Republic of Sudan’, adopted 3 February 2009, AU Assembly, 12th Ord. Session.

53 African Union, AU Doc. PSC/PR/Comm(CLXXV), ‘Communiqué of the 175th Meeting of the Peace and Security Council’, 5 March 2009, AU Peace and Security Council, 175th meeting, para. 4.

54 ‘African countries back away from ICC withdrawal demand’, Sudan Tribune (8 June 2009), available at: {}.

55 African Union, AU Doc. Assembly/AU/13(XIII), ‘Decision on the Meeting of African States Parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC)’, adopted 3 July 2009, AU Assembly 13th Ord. Session, para. 5.

56 Ibid.

57 Mills, ‘“Bashir is dividing us”’, pp. 425–6.

58 African Union, AU Doc. PSC/AHG/2(CCVII), ‘Report of the African Union High-Level Panel on Darfur, Darfur: The Quest for Peace, Justice, and Reconciliation’, 29 October 2009, AU Peace and Security Council, 207th meeting, para. 215.

59 Sudanese judges could not impartially assess the matter of their President’s culpability given ‘judicial independence’ is not possible in dictatorial regimes.

60 Acharya, ‘Norm subsidiarity’.

61 African Union, AU Doc. Min/ICC/legal/Rpt.(II), ‘Report of the 2nd Ministerial Meeting on the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC)’, 6 November 2009.

62 African Union, AU Doc. EX.CL/568(XVI), ‘Report of the Commission on the Outcome and Deliberations of the 8th Session of the Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Statute of the ICC Held at The Hague, Netherlands from 16 to 26 November’, 26 November 2009, AU Exec. Council, 16th Ord. Session, Annex 2.

63 Mills, ‘“Bashir is dividing us”’, pp. 430–1.

64 African Union, ‘Report of the Commission’.

65 International Criminal Court, ICC-ASP/8/20, Assembly of State Parties, ‘Report of the Credentials Committee’, 2009, pp. 47–81.

66 Acharya, ‘The R2P’.

67 African Union, AU Doc. Assembly/AU/8(XIV), ‘Decision on the Report of the Second Meeting of States Parties to the Rome Statute on the International Court (ICC)’, 2010.

68 African Union, AU Doc. Assembly/AU/Dec.296(XV), ‘Decision on the Progress Report of the Commission on the Implementation of Decision Assembly/AU/Dec.270(XIV) on the Second Ministerial Meeting on the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC)’, adopted 27 July 2010, AU Assembly, 15th Ord. Session, para. 6.

69 ‘African Union moves aggressively to shield Bashir from prosecution’, Sudan Tribune (29 July 2010), available at: {}.

70 ‘African Union drops resolution barring arrest of Sudanese president in continent’, Sudan Tribune (26 July 2010), available at: {}.

71 ‘African Union Moves’.

72 African Union, ‘Decision on Africa’s Relationship with the International Criminal Court (ICC)’, Ext/Assembly/AU/Dec.1(Oct.2013), adopted 12 October 2013, available at: {}.

73 Amnesty International, Malabo Protocol: Legal and Institutional Implications of the Merged and Expanded African Court (2016), available at: {}.

74 Nzau Musua and Simon Jennings, ‘Kenya Continues to Push for ICC Changes’, Institute for War Reporting (4 June 2014), available at: {}.

75 Garth Abraham, ‘Africa’s Evolving Continental Court Structures: At the Crossroads?’, South African Institute of International Affairs, Occasional Paper No. 209 (January 2015), available at: {}.

76 African Union, AU Doc. EX.CL/846(XXV) Annex 5, ‘Draft Protocol on Amendments to the Protocol on the Statute of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights’, 27 June 2014, AU Assemb. 25th Ord. Session.

77 Amnesty International, Malabo Protocol.

78 But the Malabo Protocol requires 15 ratifications to come into effect and none have been lodged.

79 Peter Fabricius, ‘Follow Me, I’m Right Behind You, Says Kenyatta’, Institute for Security Studies (4 February 2016), available at: {}.

80 African Union, ‘Withdrawal Strategy Document – Draft 2’ (12 January 2017), p. 2, available at: {}.

81 African Union, ‘Withdrawal Strategy Document’, p. 10.

82 Human Rights Watch, ‘AU’s “ICC Withdrawal Strategy” Less than Meets the Eye’ (1 February 2017), available at: {}.

83 Maddalena Procopio, ‘Reforms or Withdrawal? The Evolving Mosaic of Africa’s ICC Strategies’, Istituto Per Gli Studi Di Politica Internationale, n.d., available at: {}.

84 Acharya, ‘Norm subsidiarity’, 97.

85 Human Rights Watch, ‘Burundi: ICC Withdrawal Major Loss to Victims’ (27 October 2016), available at: {}.

86 Gabel, Katy, ‘Sudan: Facing Arrest, Bashir Stays Away from South Africa’, AllAfrica (7 May 2009), available at: { }.

87 Abraham, ‘Africa’s Evolving’.

88 Mills, Kurt, ‘Bashir in South Africa: Defeat, Victory or Both for International Criminal Justice?’, Justice in Conflict (2015), available at: { }. At a subsequent hearing before the ICC, it changed its rationale for not arresting Bashir. Allan Ngari, ‘Clutching at Straws: SA’s Reasons for not Arresting al-Bashir’ (18 April 2017), available at: {}.

89 Anne Borer, Tristan and Mills, Kurt, ‘Explaining post-apartheid South African human rights foreign policy: Unsettled identity and conflicting interests’, Journal of Human Rights, 10:1 (2011), pp. 7698 .

90 Coalition for the International Criminal Court, ‘South Africa’s Shapeshifting Position on International Justice’ (21 March 2016), available at: {}.

91 ‘South Africa to Withdraw From War Crimes Court’, BBC News (21 October 2016), available at: {}.

92 Democratic Alliance v Minister of International Relations and Cooperation and Others (83145/2016) [2017] ZAGPPHC 53; 2017 (3) SA 212 (GP); [2017] 2 All SA 123 (GP) (22 February 2017), available at: {}.

93 ‘South Africa revokes ICC withdrawal’, Mail & Guardian (8 March 2017), available at: {}.

94 Coalition for the International Criminal Court, ‘South Africa Reverses ICC Withdrawal: Now Make International Justice Work For All’, (15 March 2017), available at: {}.

95 International Criminal Court, ‘Al Bashir Case: ICC Pre-Trial Chamber II Schedules a Hearing on South Africa’s Cooperation on 7 April 2017’ (8 December 2017), available at: {}.

96 Ngari, ‘Clutching at Straws’.

97 International Criminal Court, ICC-02/05-01/09, ‘Decision under article 87(7) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court on the Non-Compliance by South Africa with the Request by the Court for the Arrest and Surrender of Omar Al-Bashir’ (6 July 2017).

98 du Plessis, Carien, ‘Justice minister withdraws bill that would take South Africa out of International Criminal Court’, Huffington Post South Africa (14 March 2017), available at: { }.

99 du Plessis, Carien, ‘ICC: At hearings, South Africa seeks clarity on Rome Statute’, Daily Maverick (11 April 2017), available at: { }.

100 African National Congress, International Relations Discussion Document, 5th National Policy Conference, 30 June–5 July 2017, pp. 4, 9, 12, available at: {}.

101 du Plessis, ‘ICC: At hearings, South Africa seeks clarity on Rome Statute’.

102 Zuma, Jacob, ‘The ANC must and will emerge from this policy conference stronger’, Daily Maverick (30 June 2017), available at: { }.

103 ‘Gambia Withdraws from International Criminal Court’, al Jazeera (26 October 2016), available at: {}.

104 ‘Amnesty Accuses Gambia Government of Brutal Repression’, al Jazeera (3 June 2016), available at: {}.

105 York, Geoffrey, ‘Gambian dictator suffers shocking defeat in election stunner’, Globe and Mail (2 December 2016), available at: { }.

106 Coalition for the International Criminal Court, ‘A Win For Justice: Gambia to Stay With the ICC’ (20 February 2017), available at: {}.

107 Kennedy, Merrit, ‘Under New Leader, Gambia Cancels Withdrawal From International Criminal Court’, NPR (14 February 2017), available at: { }.

108 Mueller, Susanne D., ‘Kenya and the International Criminal Court (ICC): Politics, the election and the law’, Journal of Eastern African Studies, 8:1 (2014), pp. 3233 .

109 International Criminal Court, ‘Press Release: Ruto and Sang Case: ICC Trial Chamber V(A) Terminates the Case Without Prejudice to Re-Prosecution in Future’ (5 April 2016), available at: {}.

110 ‘Kenyan PM says Bashir must stand before ICC, wants apology made to int’l community’, Sudan Tribune (30 August 2010), available at: {}.

111 African Union, AU Doc. Assembly/AU/Dec.334(XVI), ‘Decision on the Implementation of the Decisions on the International Criminal Court, Doc. EX.CL/639(XVIII)’, adopted 31 Jan. 2011, AU Assembly, 16th Ord. Session.

112 Bashir Watch (undated), available at: {}.

113 Fabricius, ‘Follow Me’.

114 Nouwen, Sarah M. H. and Werner, Wouter G., ‘Doing justice to the political: the International Criminal Court in Uganda and Sudan’, European Journal of International Law, 21:4 (2011), pp. 947950 .

115 Mills, International Responses.

116 ‘African Union Moves’.

117 Bernard Momanyi, ‘Uganda Leader Lashes Out at ICC’, Institute for War Reporting (20 April 2013), available at: {}.

118 ‘Western Envoys in Uganda Walk Out of Museveni Swearing-in’, BBC News (12 May 2016), available at: {}.

119 Museveni was forced to accept that since Ongwen had committed crimes outside of Uganda, he needed to face international justice. ‘LRA Commander Dominic Ongwen “in Ugandan custody”’, BBC News (14 January 2015), available at: {}.

120 ‘Uganda Starts Process to Withdraw From ICC’, The Insider (7 October 2016), avaialable at: {}.

121 ‘Africa: Uganda Not Withdrawing from ICC – Attorney General’, AllAfrica (4 April 2017), available at: {}.

122 ‘Namibia pulls out of ICC’, The Herald (25 November 2015), available at: {}.

123 ‘Namibia to Withdraw from the International Criminal Court’, The Habari Network (18 March 2016), available at: {}.

124 ‘Namibia: Nam Supports Collective Withdrawal From ICC’, AllAfrica (9 February 2017), available at: {}.

125 Jeangène Vilmer, Jena-Baptiste, ‘The African Union and the International Criminal Court: Counteracting the crisis’, International Affairs, 92:6 (2016), p. 1323 .

126 Nompumelelo Sibalukhulu and Antoinette Louw, ‘The AU and the ICC Still Not the Best of Friends’, Institute for Security Studies (20 August 2010), available at: {}.

127 Lute, Aubrey, ‘Botswana adopts universal jurisdiction’, Weekend Post (17 July 2017), available at: { }.

128 Vilmer, ‘The African Union’, p. 1340.

129 Ibid., p. 1337.

130 Coalition for the ICC, ‘Annual ICC Assembly: States Hold Ground on ICC, but Serious Challenges Remain’ (5 December 2016), available at: {}.

131 Maupas, Stéphanie, ‘ICC African Protest Continues but Does not Spread’, JusticeInfo.Net (21 November 2016), available at: { }.

132 Zuma, ‘The ANC’.

133 Afghanistan, Columbia, Iraq, Palestine, and Ukraine.

134 Vilmer ‘The African Union’, p. 1320.

135 International Criminal Court, ‘Report of the Bureau on non-cooperation’ (8 November 2016), available at: {}.

136 Brunnée, Jutta and Toope, Stephen, ‘The Responsibility to Protect and the use of force: Binding legality?’, Global Responsibility to Protect, 2:3 (2010), p. 193 .

137 For a broad typology of norms – as ‘proscribing’ (that is, ruling actions out), ‘prescribing’ (that is, requiring actions) and ‘permissive’ (allowing discretion) – see Wayne Sandholtz, ‘Multiple Paths to Norm Replacement’, paper presented at Unsteady Lives: the Dynamics of Norm Robustness workshop, Annual Meeting of the International Studies Association (Atlanta, 15 March 2016), p. 11.

138 McEvoy, Janet, ‘The staying power of African Presidents’, Africa Review (27 October 2015), available at: { }.

139 Risse, ‘“Let’s argue!”’, p. 7.

140 Ibid., pp. 8–9.


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African resistance to the International Criminal Court: Halting the advance of the anti-impunity norm

  • Kurt Mills (a1) and Alan Bloomfield (a2)
  • Please note a correction has been issued for this article.


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