South Africa to Leave International Criminal Court

By Alma Burke

Since reforming its government of apartheid and its election of Nelson Mandela as president in 1994, South Africa has become an international symbol of hope and justice throughout Africa. The government’s recent decision to leave the International Criminal Court (ICC) has sent shockwaves throughout the continent and begs the question, do politics outweigh justice?

South Africa decided last month to withdraw from the ICC, after refusing to implement an arrest warrant on Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir issued by the court. The Sudanese president flew to South Africa for a leadership summit, and the South African government claims it granted immunity to all heads of state who attended.

Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir

Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir

President al-Bashir was indicted in 2009 by the ICC and the South African High Courts of war crimes and genocide in Darfur, Sudan. According to NPR, when asked about South Africa’s lack of compliance in his arrest, a government official said the government did not want to carry out the ICC’s arrest warrant because it could cause “regime change.”

Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, who is South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, signed the document indicating the country’s withdrawal. South Africa is not the only country to leave the ICC. Burundi and Gambia also filed withdrawal receipts to the ICC days before South Africa, reports The New York Times. All three countries argue that the court disproportionately focuses on war crimes in Africa more than any other continent. Historically, the African Union has discouraged member states from cooperating with the ICC in response to these accusations.

The ICC was created in 1998 under the Rome Statute, which is controlled by the United Nations. It was officially implemented in 2002. The court has 124 ratified member states, including 34 in Africa, and is the first international legal body with permanent jurisdiction to prosecute war crimes, states Aljazeera. This means the court has the power to arrest, indict and convict crimes that are committed internationally, with member state assistance. Nine of the last 10 ICC investigations involved African leaders and war criminals, including President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya and President al-Bashir.

The creation of the ICC was partially in response to the 1994 Rwanda genocide, which caused the death of an estimated one million people in 100 days. But South Africa’s decision to leave the court is more significant than the decision by Gambia and Burundi. Former President Nelson Mandela was a champion of the high court and was one of its founders. South African Bishop Desmond Tutu has said the country’s decision to leave is a betrayal of the justice fought for by Nelson Mandela.

South Africa’s advocacy and influence within the ICC has been a key factor in its effectiveness as an international criminal court. However, since al-Bashir’s indictment, the South African government’s support has waned and the discussions to leave began last year, reported The Guardian. Scholars in international relations believe that South Africa’s decision will be a precursor to a mass exodus of African nations, which will be detrimental to the ICC and its mission. The human rights advocacy group, Human Rights Watch, has been especially critical of the country for its decision to leave, stating: “South Africa’s proposed withdrawal from the International Criminal Court shows startling disregard for justice from a country long seen as a global leader on accountability for victims of the gravest crimes.”

The International Criminal Court and its function represent the importance of international relations and influence. South Africa’s withdrawal from the ICC has the potential to affect the entire body of the high court because of the support and influence it provides to the international court. It also speaks to a skewed political system that protects leaders accused of terrible crimes, while doing nothing for the victims of those crimes.

Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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