Still image from a video shows Gaddafi gesturing as he speaks at a Tripoli hotel
Still image from a video shows Gaddafi gesturing as he speaks at a Tripoli hotel Reuters

Yesterday the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for the Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi, raising as they did so an interesting question. Why does the ICC only seem to target African despots?

The ICC currently has its sights not only on Colonel Gaddafi and his son, but on a range of unsavoury individuals from Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, the Central African Republic and Kenya.

Indeed when the ICC issued its arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for crimes against humanity some states (including Libya) of the African Union (at the time chaired by Colonel Gaddafi) threatened to pull out of the ICC in protest at the "double standard", which seemed to target African leaders to the exclusion of all others.

There is little doubt that many of the African despots and criminals presently on the ICC's wanted list are not getting the treatment their actions deserve. Yet they may have a point in wondering why some of the world's other dictators are not on the list.

Where for example are the rulers of Burma? whose army of professional rapists could certainly challenge that of Omar al-Bashir's in their brutality to ethnic minorities.

What about Bashar al-Assad, the man described by writer Christopher Hitchens as "the human toothbrush and slobbering dauphin of the slobbering tyrant who came before him", whose tanks and troops have been used with great liberality against his own people.

Then there are the communist dinosaurs Fidel Castro, who has never been averse to imprisoning or shooting political enemies, and Kim Jong Il, who runs a state so poverty stricken and repressive he makes the old Soviet Union look as free and prosperous as Switzerland.

Why do none of these people have ICC arrest warrants?

One can only suspect it's to do with power. The ICC as it stands is a weak and feeble body, able only to issue warrants but not enforce them. Omar al-Bashir has managed quite well despite being a wanted man for the last two years and if Colonel Gaddafi does ever end up at the ICC, it will not be the ICC that brought him there.

Given that the ICC is so weak and unable to enact its own judgements, it makes perfect sense that they should only go for weak targets, such as can be found in Africa.

Indeed Colonel Gaddafi and Omar al-Bashir are exceptions rather than the rule when it comes to the ICC's wanted list, which mainly consists of paramilitary types with little or no official position, like Joseph Kony, rather than heads of state.

The weakness of African despots usually stems not from the fact that they are African, but more from the fact that they very often have few or no powerful friends.

Colonel Gaddafi for example has successfully managed to alienate almost everyone in the Arab world with his antics over the years, by contrast Bashar al-Assad, who has been just as ruthless as Colonel Gaddafi, is rather close to the regional power Iran.

The dictatorships in Rangoon and Pyongyang can also attribute their continued existence to the support and friendship of China, a nation which itself should have the ICC knocking at a few doors, as should Iran (if the ICC ever did any knocking that is).

No it seems like the ICC's apparent fixation with Africa is not based on racism, but more on the facts of power. The ICC itself has almost none, it therefore makes sense that it should go after the weakest criminals and despots, rather than top league tyrants.