South Africa has decided to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC) following a dispute last year over a visit by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the tribunal for alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
The decision came after another African nation, Burundi, this week signed legislation to become the first to withdraw from the ICC — raising concerns that states have begun to act on years of threats to leave over what they call the court’s disproportionate targeting of the continent.
“It’s important both for South Africa and the region that this runaway train be slowed down,” Dewa Mavhinga, Human Rights Watch’s Africa division senior researcher, said in a statement yesterday.
“Questions remain about whether the [South African] government even acted in line with its own laws for leaving the court,” Mavhinga said.
A copy of South Africa’s Instrument of Withdrawal, dated Wednesday and signed by South African Minister of Foreign Affairs Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, was obtained on Thursday by reporters.
It states that 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 of obligations contained in the Rome Statute,” which established the court.
According to the Rome Statute, South Africa — as a party to the ICC — has an obligation to arrest anyone sought by the tribunal.
The charges against al-Bashir stem from the bloodshed in Sudan’s western Darfur region, which began in 2003 when rebels took up arms against the government in Khartoum, accusing it of discrimination and neglect.
The UN says 300,000 people have died in the conflict and 2.7 million have fled their homes.
In June last year, al-Bashir went to South Africa to attend an African Union summit, but the government did not arrest him. A provincial court ordered him to remain in the country while judges deliberated on whether he should be arrested on the ICC warrants, but al-Bashir left for Sudan before the court ruled that he should indeed be arrested.
The South African Supreme Court of Appeal later described the government’s failure to arrest al-Bashir as “disgraceful conduct.”
The government said in a statement in late June last year that it would consider withdrawing from the ICC as a “last resort” following the dispute over al-Bashir.
It cited “contradictions” in the statute and said South Africa would have found it difficult to arrest al-Bashir because of treaty obligations with the African Union.
The African Union has asked the ICC to stop proceedings against sitting presidents and has said it will not compel any member states to arrest a leader on behalf of the ICC.
South Africa’s decision to quit the ICC follows Tuesday’s announcement that Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza signed legislation to make his nation the first to withdraw from the ICC, which had said it would investigate recent political violence there.
No country has ever withdrawn from the ICC, which was established to prosecute cases of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Burundi’s decision to withdraw follows a bitter dispute with the international community over the human rights situation in the east African country. More than a year of deadly violence has followed Nkurunziza’s decision to pursue a third term, which some have called unconstitutional.
According to the South African document, its withdrawal will take effect one year after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is officially notified.
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