By Quartz and News24
South Africa is leaving the International Criminal Court, sparking speculation that other African nations could follow suit and quit the court. Justice Minister Michael Masutha confirmed the decision in a televised press briefing on Friday. The decision was taken by South Africa’s executive and will be finalised in a year, he said.
Just last week, Burundi decided to withdraw from the ICC.
African leaders have long complained that the ICC is biased against them, even though South Africa and many African states were founding members of the court, based in The Hague in the Netherlands. The court was founded to help prosecute war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity that would often be ignored in individual countries because the crimes implicated high-ranking military or political leaders.
Minister Masutha said the decision was motivated by a Supreme Court ruling related to the visit of Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the court. The minister said the country’s membership of the ICC was at odds with its obligations to provide diplomatic immunity to visiting dignitaries.
He said that South Africa’s membership in the ICC made negotiating peace on the continent more difficult, without saying how or why. South Africa would maintain its commitment to human rights through other international bodies such as the African Union, Masutha said.
South Africa’s minister of international affairs Maite Nkoana-Mashabane gave notice of South Africa’s intention to quit the ICC to the United Nations on October 19.
“The Republic of South Africa has found that its obligations with respect to the peaceful resolution of conflicts at times are incompatible with the interpretation given by the International Criminal Court,” Nkoana-Mashabane’s notice reads. South Africa ratified the Rome Statute, the law enacting the powers of the court, in 2000.
South Africa flouted ICC rules last year when the country hosted al-Bashir during the African Union summit. Al-Bashir is wanted for atrocities committed during the Darfur conflict, in which at least 300,000 people are believed to have been killed. Under court rules, South Africa should have surrendered the Sudanese president to officials in The Hague.
At the time President Jacob Zuma gave the African Union summit assurances that al-Bashir would not be arrested, quoting Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe who was chairman of the AU at the time of the Bashir incident in South Africa.
Responding to questions by journalists following the close of the AU summit in Sandton, President Mugabe said because Bashir was a wanted man, NGOs were going to court to try force his arrest.
“This is not the headquarters of the ICC and we do not want it in this region at all,” Mugabe said. “There is a view that we must distance ourselves from the ICC, but unfortunately the treaty that set it up was done not by the AU, but by individual countries,” he said.
“But those who signed the treaty are now regretting. We didn’t sign it as Zimbabwe. We won’t subject ourselves to justice outside our country’s borders,” President Mugabe said.
“But those who signed the treaty are now regretting. We didn’t sign it as Zimbabwe. We won’t subject ourselves to justice outside our country’s borders.”
Mugabe said in court “not all judges think like we do”, and they might dislike “freedom fighters” or the way things are done in a certain country, he said.
A South African judge ordered that al-Bashir be prevented from leaving South Africa after lawyers at the Southern Africa Litigation Centre brought an urgent interdict to the court to compel the government to arrest al-Bashir. South African officials ignored the ruling and allowed al-Bashir to return to Sudan.
After years of accusing the ICC of targeting them, African leaders are now taking action even though many ICC cases are brought by African citizens. Burundi became the first country to begin withdrawal last week when the country’s parliament voted in favor of leaving the ICC on October 12. The ICC is investigating electoral violence in Burundi that left dozens dead and extended president Pierre Nkurunziza’s rule.
Human rights activists are alarmed at the withdrawals. “It’s important both for South Africa and the region that this runaway train be slowed down,” Dewa Mavhinga, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch in southern Africa, said in a statement.