Kenyan lawmakers on Thursday backed a motion to pull out of the International Criminal Court, an angry snub to The Hague-based tribunal ahead of next week’s trial of Vice President William Ruto.
The symbolic vote offers a defiant message to the ICC, but does not impact upcoming trials of the east African nation’s leadership, and parliament must now vote on a bill within 30 days to formalise steps for an actual withdrawal.
Kenya is the first country to hold such a vote to leave the world court.
The motion “to suspend any links, cooperation and assistance” to the court was overwhelming approved by the National Assembly through a voice vote.
“The house resolves to introduce a bill within 30 days to repeal the international crimes act of 2008, and that the government urgently undertakes measures for the withdrawal of the Rome Statute” that set up the ICC, Speaker Justin Muturi said.
On Tuesday, the ICC trial opens of Vice-President Ruto on three counts of crimes against humanity for allegedly organising 2007-2008 post-election unrest that killed at least 1,100 people and displaced more than 600,000.
Ruto’s trial comes about two months ahead of that of President Uhuru Kenyatta, who faces five charges of crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, persecution and deportation.
Both Kenyatta and Ruto have said they will cooperate fully with the court and deny the charges against them. Also due to appear in The Hague is radio boss Joshua Arap Sang, accused of inciting violence.
Parliamentary majority leader Aden Duale, in a heated debate in which lawmakers were frequently called to order as they stamped on the floor and cheered their colleagues, said leaving the ICC would defend the country’s constitution and “redeem the image of Kenya”.
“It will set the stage for the end to the culture of impunity both at home and abroad,” Duale claimed.
One MP urged colleagues to condemn the ICC to “the cesspool of history”.
But opposition MP Jakoyo Midiwo said it was “a dark day for Kenya” and that the country would “suffer consequences of pulling out.”
Opposition leader Francis Nyenze said pulling out would cast Kenya in a poor light internationally.
“What message are we sending to the ICC?” Nyenze said. “It is not good for the country to be seen to be hostile to the court.”
Many Kenyan politicians have branded the ICC a “neo-colonialist” institution that only targets Africans, prompting the debate on a possible departure from the Rome Statute of the ICC.
The Jubilee Coalition of Kenyatta and Ruto dominate both Kenya’s National Assembly and Senate, its upper house, which is due to discuss the same motion next week.
The ICC was set up in 2002 to try the world’s worst crimes, and countries voluntarily sign up to join.
Any actual withdrawal requires the submission of a formal request to the United Nations, a process that would take at least a year.
A withdrawal could however preclude the ICC from investigating and prosecuting any future crimes.
“A withdrawal does not in any way affect ongoing cases and proceedings,” ICC spokesman Fadi El Abdallah said in a statement.
“A referendum or a government’s decision would not change Kenya’s obligation under international law… to fully cooperate with the ICC in respect to cases.”
Cases could then only be brought before the court if the government decides to accept ICC jurisdiction or the UN Security Council makes a referral.
Amnesty International condemned the move, warning that it would strip Kenyans “of one of the most important human rights protections,” and calling it the “latest in a series of disturbing initiatives to undermine the work of the ICC in Kenya and across the continent.”
Kenya’s 2007 elections were marred by allegations of vote rigging, but what began as political riots quickly turned into ethnic killings and reprisal attacks, plunging Kenya into its worst wave of violence since independence in 1963.
Kenyatta and Ruto were fierce rivals in the 2007 vote, but teamed up together and were elected in March in peaceful polls.