The International Criminal Court is today in crisis in Africa. Its exclusive focus on the continent has backfired, as high profile cases have collapsed, states flout arrest warrants, suspects remain at large, convictions are few, and sentences unsatisfactory. The Court is accused of political bias and neocolonialism. South Africa seems on the brink of withdrawing from the Rome Statute altogether, with many member states of the African Union threatening to follow.

While the ICC itself may be in dire straits, international criminal justice seems ascendant. The trial of Hissene Habré is lauded as a test case for trying African defendants in African courts. ICC law has been nationalized and special divisions of national courts have been established, celebrated as a victory for positive complementarity. The AU is working towards its own African Criminal Court, and calls are heard for trials as part of the peace process in South Sudan and elsewhere. Even while prominent African leaders such as Thabo Mbeki warn categorically against criminal trials for dealing with mass violence, trials seem now to be taken for granted, as a natural and necessary part of transitional justice on the continent.

The paper explores this ambiguous status of international criminal law in Africa at present and asks where emancipatory political possibilities can be discerned in this conjuncture.


Adam Branch is University Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Studies and Fellow of Trinity Hall. Prior to joining Cambridge, he was senior research fellow at the Makerere Institute of Social Research in Kampala, Uganda, and associate professor of political science at San Diego State University, USA. He is the author of Africa Uprising: Popular Protest and Political Change (Zed Books, 2015, co-authored with Zachariah Mampilly) and Displacing Human Rights: War and Intervention in Northern Uganda (Oxford University Press, 2011). He has also spent extensive time working with human rights organizations in Uganda and internationally.