New York - African nations will on Friday launch one of the
biggest challenges yet to the International Criminal Court by forcing a UN
Security Council vote on suspending the trial of Kenya's president.
A resolution seeking to defer crimes against humanity
charges against President Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice President William Ruto for
one year is almost certain to fail through lack of support.
But diplomats and justice experts say the action risks
heightening tensions between the ICC and Africa.
The two leaders are accused of masterminding unrest after a
2007 presidential election in 2007 in which at least 1 100 people died.
Kenyatta and Ruto took office after an election this year.
Ruto's trial has started, while that of Kenyatta gets
underway February 5 after being delayed three times.
Both have so far co-operated with the ICC. But Kenya has
made two written requests to the council to suspend or halt the cases.
Scores of Kenyan victims of the violence have also withdrawn
from the ICC case because of what diplomats and experts call "intimidation".
The resolution to be voted on Friday is the most serious bid
yet to suspend proceedings.
The Security Council can ask for an ICC case to be deferred
for a year under Article 16 of the court's founding Rome Statute if a trial is
considered a threat to international peace.
The resolution has been pressed by Rwanda, a temporary
Security Council member, but not an ICC signatory, with strong backing by
Ethiopia, another ICC opponent.
It would need at least nine votes on the 15 member council
to pass. But with the council's seven ICC signatories and the United States
against them, the resolution has no chance, diplomats said.
The draft resolution says the court case is
"distracting and preventing" Kenyatta and Ruto from their duties.
It takes up African Union complaints that the two should be
left to handle Kenya's role in battling Islamist militants in Somalia and the
aftermath of September's Westgate mall attack in Nairobi which left 67 dead.
But western diplomats and activists see a largely political
campaign to halt the proceedings and more generally by countries opposed to the
ICC to discredit the court.
African leaders frequently complain that the ICC
discriminates against their continent.
All eight cases being investigated by the ICC concern
Africa. But nearly all were called by the countries involved and Africa's 34
members make up a key chunk of the court's 122 signatories.
"The Africans have now reached a stage where they are
talking about this is as a test of whether you are in favour of Africa or
against Africa," said one UN diplomat who has taken part in the often
highly emotive talks on the resolution.
This was "deeply resented" by countries who oppose
the resolution, added the diplomat, who highlighted how the Security Council
voted this week to increase an African force in Somalia which is almost
entirely paid for by the European Union.
"This is turning into the biggest challenge to the
court since it was set up," added a second council diplomat.
"Undoubtedly, the pressure exerted by Kenya, by Rwanda,
by Ethiopia increases strain on the court as it tries to strengthen its
impact," commented Richard Dicker, justice specialist with the Human
Rights Watch group.
He said part of the motivation for the vote was to
"ratchet up pressure" ahead of an assembly of the Rome Statute member
countries in The Hague starting next on Wednesday.
The assembly is to discuss possible measures such as
allowing defendants to take part by video-conference and to give courts' extra
leeway to allow absences, which could help Kenyatta and Ruto.
Some African leaders have agitated for an African withdrawal
from the ICC.
"I don't think this would lead to a mass walkout, but
if this vote goes ahead the atmosphere will be so bad at the assembly it is
going to make it so much more difficult to reach agreement on things that could
make a difference," said the UN diplomat.
"And it would increase the likelihood that Kenyatta
will not co-operate with the court," the official added.