Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also author of “The Moslems Are Coming” (HarperCollins India). He can be found on Twitter @AzadEssa.
Last week, the South African government did the seemingly unthinkable: It confirmed that it was pulling out of the International Criminal Court. The decision comes days after Burundi signaled its intention to leave the ICC.
In a statement to the United Nations titled “Instrument of Withdrawal,” the South African government claimed it was leaving the international body because being part of the ICC was “incompatible” with its efforts to mediate peace in Africa. Though many have expressed shock, with rights groups from Human Rights Watch to Amnesty International condemning the move, the decision is a long time coming.
African leaders have long accused the court of targeting the continent. In the six cases since its formation in 2002 under the “Rome Statute,” the court has charged only African nationals.
In the 10 investigations underway at the ICC, nine involve African nationals. It is no surprise that the ICC has been labeled an instrument of neo-colonialism in which Western powers are able to exert a legal hold on the affairs of the continent. Though 124 countries are signed on to the ICC, the United States, Russia and China, all three of which are members of the U.N. Security Council, aren’t signatories. Israel, India and Saudi Arabia are not signatories to the ICC either. Thus the court is indeed handicapped, but still not irrelevant.
South Africa has been one of the talismans in the call for African countries to pull out of the organization. The South African government’s refusal to arrest Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, charged with war crimes and genocide, during his visit to the country last year, signaled contempt for the court.
“South Africa has increasingly remarked on the inequalities within the global justice architecture,” says Kelly-Jo Bluen of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Johannesburg. “And while the immediate rationale behind the withdrawal is expedient, this has not happened in a vacuum.”
But is South Africa’s decision to withdraw from the ICC a deeply thought-out protest to leverage a more just world in which Western nations are held equally accountable for the crimes they commit? Or is Africa’s largest economy engaging in political posturing that will deepen its hypocrisy and bigotry?
In fact, South Africa’s economic interests might likely be the driving force behind its attempt to placate leaders of African countries who feel aggrieved with Western impositions.
In announcing its decision to withdraw from the ICC, South Africa did not offer an alternative method of seeking justice, nor did it explain why its membership to the ICC would impede its efforts to mediate conflict. Crucially, while South Africa may project itself as the vanguard of the African agenda, and the patron of peace on the continent, its foreign policy is strikingly geared toward trade and little else. After all, this is the same country that won’t allow the Dalai Lama in for fear of upsetting trade relations with China.
This is the same country that sent a delegation to Syria in May to talk economic partnership with the Syrian government involved in one of the biggest humanitarian disasters of this century.
South Africa does indeed have a non-interventionist agenda and a contrarian approach to foreign ambitions on the African continent. However, it has veered far away from a foreign policy purportedly centered on human rights and has garnered a reputation for being condescending to other African countries, rendering its attempt to assume the moral high ground regarding the ICC patronizing at best. During a time of rising global insecurity, South Africa should be calling for more accountability, not less.
Former president Thabo Mbeki and African academic Mahmood Mamdani have previously argued that courts do not achieve peace as effectively as political processes, citing the South African transition as a prime example of reconciliation without legal condemnation. But given the social discord in present-day South Africa over a lack of redress over land, resources and opportunities, this argument is bewildering.
If anything, there has been no public discussion or mandate from South African citizens to withdraw from the ICC. The withdrawal underscores what has become a signature hallmark of the Zuma administration: a lack of transparency, accountability and, ultimately, logic.
South Africa’s decision is expected to have a tremendous effect on the rest of the continent, with Namibia and Kenya likely to follow suit. Gambia has announced its withdrawal from the court. But it’s unlikely every state will see value in pulling out. Africa is not a country, after all.
But even then, South Africa’s move is not confirmed. The government’s decision will face the wrath of civil society and will be tabled in Parliament.
It might seem ironic that a country whose leaders don’t face the risk of any current investigation from the ICC would seek to pull out of a treaty meant to deliver justice to victims of some the most heinous crimes. But given its poor record of redress and accountability at home, it is perhaps apt. The South African government’s abandonment of human rights has just gone global.