The African Union said Friday it has approved a draft decision to grant leaders immunity in the continental court, a move criticised by rights groups accusing the bloc of promoting impunity.
"Leaders, heads of state (and) senior government officials should not be on trial while they are in office, because the ship of state must continue to be steered," Vincent Nmehielle, AU director for legal affairs, told AFP.
Nmehielle said all member states agreed unanimously to grant immunity to sitting heads of state at the African Court on Human and Peoples' Right, which is not expected to be operational for several years.
The draft resolution was passed at last month's AU summit in Equatorial Guinea, and prompted outcry from rights groups.
"It's sending a message that rulers are above the law so far as regional crises are concerned," Amnesty International Netsanet Belay told AFP.
African leaders currently indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) include Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto, as well as Sudan's Omar al-Bashir.
The AU has slammed the ICC for unfairly targeting Africans, calling the international court "racist", and last October requested for the Kenyan cases to be deferred, a bid rejected by the United Nations.
Nmehielle said the AU is committed to justice, but that it has the right to its own regional court, and said the ICC should not focus on African leaders in its pursuit for punishment.
"You will get a backlash, you will not have a cooperative atmosphere from the whole of Africa and no region will give you that cooperation if you keep targeting leaders," he said.
But Belay urged leaders to rethink the resolution, calling it a "serious backwards step".
"The leaders should reconsider the decision they made in this regard and citizens should hold their governments accountable," he said.
The idea of an African regional court was established by the AU in 1998, but has failed to launch as a result of funding shortfalls and debate over its role.
If it becomes operational, it will not necessarily replace the ICC, but could act as a mechanism for justice for countries that are not ICC members.