THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The International Criminal Court's prosecutor said Tuesday that it is a "regression" for African nations — including her home country of Gambia — to quit the court and said the continent should work with her office to end impunity for atrocities.
Speaking to The Associated Press at the court's headquarters overlooking the North Sea on the edge of The Hague, Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said regional and local courts in Africa can also play a key role in bringing perpetrators of atrocities to justice.
Bensouda's comments came as the court's governing body, the Assembly of States Parties, met nearby with the issue of departing African states figuring prominently in its discussions.
South Africa, Burundi and Gambia have announced plans to leave the court, which has 124 member states, sparking fears of a domino effect among other African nations.
"I think it's a setback for the continent, it's a regression for the continent that there are some African states that are deciding to withdraw from the ICC," Bensouda said.
However, she said that the announced withdrawals have galvanized support for the court among other African countries attending the annual gathering of member states.
"I wanted to emphasize that today during this Assembly of States Parties you have the vast majority of African states recommitting to the ICC and renewing ... support for the ICC," Bensouda said.
One way of the international court engaging with Africa is by supporting local and regional courts, Bensouda said. Her office is working with authorities in Central African Republic to help establish a court to prosecute atrocities in that conflict-torn country.
"What we should also remember is that the ICC was not meant to take each and every case," Bensouda said. "So there must be national efforts, there must be regional efforts that are also trying to bridge the impunity gap."
She said the ICC would continue to go after those considered most responsible for atrocities, while local and regional courts could bring others to justice. "That way we can complement each other."
Human rights lawyer Reed Brody, who worked for years to have former Chadian dictator Hissen Habre prosecuted, agrees.
"It's possible, and desirable, if these trials could be held in Africa, everyone would be happier," he said in a recent interview. "The ICC is a court of last resort, and it only steps in when the justice mechanisms at home are absent or unable to take on cases."
In May, in an example of an African-based court prosecuting a former leader, the Extraordinary African Chambers in Senegal found Habre guilty and sentenced him to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and sex crimes committed during his presidency from 1982-1990.
Addressing another issue being discussed at the Assembly of States Parties, Bensouda said she hopes member states will support the court's proposed 2017 budget of just over 147 million euros ($156 million), a 7 percent increase over the 2016 budget. Activists say some member states are pushing for the court to adopt a budget at the same level as this year, with no increase for inflation.
Bensouda said she wants to expand the number of investigations her office carries out, but needs sufficient funds.
"If I'm not able to get that budget approved, it would mean I have to study again my case docket and perhaps prioritize what I need to do and what has to wait," she said.
Bensouda said last week that she is close to deciding whether to open a full-scale investigation in Afghanistan — which could target alleged crimes by U.S. forces and CIA agents, as well as by the Taliban and Afghan forces. On Tuesday, she said the decision would be made "in due course."
Asked if she was concerned that Donald Trump's election as the next U.S. president would affect the probe, she said: "We reach out to those we think should cooperate with us for us to be able to do out work and this is exactly what the office will continue to do irrespective of which dossier, irrespective of which government is in place."
Associated Press writer Carley Petesch in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.