South Africa announced that it will withdraw from the International Criminal Court on Friday. Its minister of international relations, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, submitted an official notice to the UN declaring the country’s withdrawal, the second withdrawal this month.
Last week, Burundi also submitted notice that it was leaving the International Criminal Court. The withdrawal came after the ICC began an investigation into a violent crackdown on opposition by the Burundian president, Pierre Nkurunziza, according to The Washington Post.
The country’s ambassador to Washington told Foreign Policy that they were extremely happy to be leaving and promised that more countries would follow, and now South Africa has left. David L. Bosco, associate professor of international speaking to the New York Times, contrasted the two countries’ departures: while Burundi’s was a transparent attempt to avoid international scrutiny, South Africa was once a major supporter.
In 1998, Nelson Mandela endorsed the International Criminal Court, then only a possibility spurred on after the genocide in Rwanda and the war in Bosnia. He claimed that, if there were such a court, such abuses “might not have occurred, or at least been minimized.” The court was intended to investigate abuses or serious crimes such as genocide when those countries could not investigate those crimes themselves.
Yet the ICC came under criticism from South Africa in June of last year when the ICC demanded that the country detain Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who was wanted by the court on charges including war crimes. The Rome Statute, which established the court in 2002, obligates all member nations to arrest anyone sought by the tribunal, according to the New York Times. Despite a ruling by a South African court confirming the country’s obligation, the South African government refused, saying that it had granted immunity to all heads of state, according to NPR.
Much of the criticism revolves around the fact that, so far, only Africans have been convicted by the court. Although preliminary investigations have been opened in Columbia and Afghanistan, according to the Associated Press, the six cases on the court’s docket all indict Africans. This includes a much-maligned set of charges against Kenyan politicians following electoral violence in 2007, although that case, according to the New York Times, has collapsed due to witness intimidation on the part of the accused.
This has led to accusations of a “neo-colonial agenda,” on the part of the International Criminal Court, says Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service.
The court’s top prosecutor, the Gambian lawyer Fatou Bensouda, rebutted this criticism, saying that six of the nine cases handled by the court were brought by African governments themselves and that two others were referred to the tribunal by the United Nations Security Council. Only one, the Kenyan case, was initiated by the tribunal itself.
Regardless of the truth of the accusations against the International Criminal Court, however, the fact remains that many are worried about additional withdrawals. The two most at-risk countries include Uganda and Kenya, both of which have been strident in their criticism of the institution following investigation.
Henry Oryem Okello, a Ugandan minister, has been tight-lipped about Uganda’s plans regarding the ICC, saying merely that the country was “undecided.” He also suggested that the issue might be taken up at an African Union summit meeting in January.
What do you think of South Africa’s decision to withdraw? Is the International Criminal Court an important institution, or does it unfairly focus on Africans? Sound off in the comments and tell us what you think!
By James Mayfield