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President Omar al-BashirThe judgement by Justice Ombija issuing an order of arrest against President AI Bashir of Sudan has been subject of contestation for several months

It’s evident from reading the judgement that the judge erred in law: the judge was wrong to issue the order. To summarise Judge Ombija’s decision, he says that Kenya has an obligation to arrest AI Bashir because we ratified the Rome Statute, passed a law domesticating it and have in any case a Constitution that applies every treaty ratified by Kenya as part of our law.


But, can the applicants, ICJ-Kenya actually apply for an arrest warrant as they did? I have difficulty identifying what basis they were allowed to address the court on substance. Under the International Crimes Act that domesticates the Rome Statute, only the Minister can approach the High Court for an arrest warrant.

Immunity against execution

Under our law, there are only two possibilities for a private citizen to come to court on this matter: for judicial review asking the court to issue orders compelling the Minister to approach the court for a warrant, or rely on the generous provisions on standing in the constitution by alleging that the constitution, in particular the bill of rights has been violated.

Neither of this was done by the ICJ. In short, the judge improperly allowed a private citizen to act as the Minister.
According to the judgement, the crucial link between Kenya’s obligations to the ICC and the need to arrest is universal jurisdiction.

According to the judge’s reading of this principle, any state can arrest, prosecute or extradite anyone who commits an international crime anywhere.

The problem with this view is twofold. First, with utmost respect to the judge, a discussion of universal jurisdiction on which he bases his decision should never have been conducted because it is irrelevant: the Rome Statute does not include universal jurisdiction. In my view, the judgement can fall on this score alone.

Secondly, although the judge discusses universal jurisdiction at length and he is broadly right on the principle, he does not consider or discuss the fact that current case law all of it developed by leading Western courts is that a sitting head of state is immune from arrest or prosecution by national courts abroad.

With utmost respect to the judge that he only arrives at the conclusion that Kenya has an obligation to arrest by considering arguments that should not be relevant to the discussion, but more crucially, by not considering the most crucial issue. This central issue, on the basis of which the warrant issue should be resolved and on which his decision stands or falls is regrettably not dealt with by the judge.

The issue is: even when there is an ICC arrest warrant, can a sitting head of state be arrested abroad and handed over the ICC? The judge simply says in a couple of lines that no one benefits from immunity in respect of the ICC. Although he doesn’t cite the provision, this position is represented in article 27 of the Rome Statute.
It is true that the ICC can indict anyone. However, it is not the correct approach to base Kenya’s obligation to arrest on article 27. If the Rome Statute forms part of our law, one must go on to see what else the Rome Statute says.

The judge correctly does that, but he stops at article 91 and 92 which regulate procedure for arrest. By doing that, the judge misses the fact that a sitting head of state is subject to a different procedure of arrest, under article 98(1).

Under international law of diplomatic relations and state immunity a sitting head of state ordinarily enjoys immunity from the actions of foreign organs of state including the Judiciary a Kenyan court can only properly order arrest of AI Bashir if one of three things exist: Sudan waives his immunity (through national law) or he is removed from office or Kenya removes its recognition of him as the legitimate Sudanese President.

The cases of Milosevic of the former Yugoslavia, Charles Taylor of Liberia, and former Ivorian strong man Laurent Gbagbo who now sits in a cell in The Hague months after leaving office all support this view. Until there is a new rule of international law introduced perhaps by an amendment of the Rome Statute, saying a sitting head of state indicted by the ICC can be picked up when visiting a foreign nation, we are stuck with what we have.

It is for this reason that I fault the ICC judges’ ruling made several days ago on this issue (a decision involving Malawi’s refusal to arrest AI Bashir), which I will address, in a future piece.

However, I have serious doubts that a rule allowing arrest of a sitting head of state will emerge soon. The immunity enjoyed by heads of state and foreign ministers when travelling abroad to conduct diplomacy for their nations is one of a handful of rules that form the cornerstone of the international system. I cannot visualise a different world other than an anarchic one where the legal equality of states did not exist.

My interpretation of article 98 of the Rome Statute does not mean a President cannot be tried: we just have to wait until he/she leaves office.Gbagbo is now in The Hague, seven months after his ouster. Too bad if a country is not a democracy or if is the case in Sudan other states are unwilling, because of their national interests, to remove recognition of the sitting head of state that would enable them arrest him without breaching international law. Right now, resolution of the Bashir issue does not lie in the law: it is political.

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