ADDIS ABABA : African leaders gathered for a special summit Saturday to urge the International Criminal Court not to prosecute sitting heads of state and defer the crimes against humanity trials of Kenya’s leadership.

The meeting at the African Union headquarters comes amid mounting tensions with the ICC, which has been accused of acting like a neo-colonialist institution that has singled out Africans since being set up as the world’s first permanent court to try genocide and war crimes. Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told ministers and delegates at the opening of the two-day meeting on Friday that the Hague-based court was guilty of “unfair treatment of Africa and Africans”. “The court has transformed itself into a political instrument.

This unfair and unjust treatment is totally unacceptable,” he said of the ICC, which is currently handling eight cases — all of them against Africans.

The Ethiopian foreign minister said heads of state from the 54-member AU would urge the UN to suspend the ICC cases pending against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, his deputy William Ruto as well as the case against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

The African Union (AU) had agreed that “sitting heads of state and government should not be prosecuted while in office,” he said. Under Article 16 of the international court’s founding treaty, the UN Security Council can call on the ICC to suspend any case for a year at a time.

Kenyatta and Ruti have been charged with crimes against humanity for allegedly masterminding a vicious campaign of ethnic violence after disputed 2007 elections.

Now allies and elected this year on a platform of national reconciliation, they argue the case is violating Kenyan sovereignty and hampering their running of the country.

Sudan’s Bashir, who was among the heads of state seen arriving at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa for the summit, is wanted by the court in The Hague on 10 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Sudan’s Darfur conflict.

African countries account for 34 of the 122 parties to have ratified the ICC’s founding treaty, which took effect on July 1, 2002. A mass pull-out from the court — as some countries have demanded — could seriously damage the institution.

The bloc, however, appeared to be divided on the issue — with countries like Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia and Rwanda taking a tough line, but other nations seemingly more reluctant to get embroiled in a diplomatic confrontation. Prominent African figures have also lobbied hard against a pull-out.

South African anti-apartheid icon and Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu has been among those backing the world court, and has argued the number of African cases was merely a reflection on the dismal human rights record of many of the continent’s governments.

“Those leaders seeking to skirt the court are effectively looking for a licence to kill, maim and oppress their own people,” he wrote in an op-ed carried by several newspapers ahead of the talks.

Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan also said a pull-out would leave Africa wearing a “badge of shame”.

But according to one African diplomat, there was still a sentiment the ICC — which is an independent international organisation, and is not part of the United Nations system — was turning a blind eye to other parts of the world where “massive crimes against humanity had been committed”.

The ICC has charged Kenya’s leaders, as well as former radio boss Joshua Arap Sang, with crimes against humanity linked to post-election violence in 2007-2008 that left at least 1,100 dead and more than 600,000 homeless.

The trial of Ruto and Sang has already begun, and Kenyatta is due in court on November 12.

The accused have so far pledged to cooperate with the court, but the relationship has been soured by accusations of witness intimidation in Kenya and counter-complaints against the ICC that it has been manipulating witnesses and is inflexible.

Following last month’s Islamist militant attack on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall, the government also demanded that Kenyatta be allowed to appear by video-link so he can deal with national security issues.

Should the accused fail to turn up for any of the hearings that could trigger arrest warrants, with Kenya then running the risk of diplomatic isolation.