NAIROBI — South Africa announced Friday that it plans to withdraw from the International Criminal Court, a major blow to an institution that has struggled to fulfill its role as a global seat of judgment for war crimes and other atrocities.
South Africa’s departure is particularly striking given that it became a symbol of justice and reconciliation with the election of anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela as president more than two decades ago. Its announcement is a reflection of rising antagonism toward the court across sub-Saharan Africa.
The court was established in 2002 with jurisdiction over “the most serious crimes of concern to the international community,” according to its founding charter. But the majority of its indictments have been related to wars or political violence in Africa. Nine of its 10 current investigations involve countries on the continent. Those ratios have led a host of African leaders to denounce the court in rallies and at international institutions.
South Africa’s announcement came just days after Burundi’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, signed a decree paving the way for his country to leave the court. He acted as ICC investigators were beginning an inquiry into a violent crackdown on government opponents there.
The court, based in The Hague, has been criticized as ineffective and handicapped by the lack of support from some members. In 2009, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, accusing him of war crimes. But that has not stopped Bashir from visiting a number of African nations, none of which have detained him.
In June 2015, Bashir was in South Africa when a domestic judge ordered that the Sudanese leader be detained. But South African officials allowed Bashir to return to Sudan, setting off a wave of criticism from human rights advocates.
It was that case, along with the subsequent debate about South Africa’s obligations as an ICC member, that led to the country’s decision to leave the court. South Africa’s government felt that the pressure to arrest those wanted by the court hurt its role “promoting peace, stability and dialogue in those countries,” Michael Masutha, South Africa’s minister of justice and correctional services, said Friday.
South Africa’s minister of international relations, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, sent an official notification to the United Nations earlier this week that said the country will leave the court in one year.
That marks a striking departure from Mandela’s endorsement of the ICC in 1998, when he told a conference of diplomats and African leaders that previous conflicts or abuses “might not have occurred, or at least been minimized, had there been an effectively functioning international criminal court.” The court acts when countries are unable or unwilling to prosecute serious crimes such as genocide themselves.
South Africa’s current president, Jacob Zuma, has been criticized for abandoning Mandela’s message of inclusion and his leadership on human rights issues. The country’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, said the ICC withdrawal was unconstitutional without parliamentary approval and vowed to take the decision to court.
South Africa will join more than two dozen countries that are not members of the court, including the United States. The Pentagon has long been concerned that the international war-crimes court could target U.S. military personnel around the world.
Many human rights activists worry that other countries will follow Burundi and South Africa in quitting the court. South Africa, the continent’s wealthiest nation, often plays a leadership role in regional political affairs. No country has ever before left the ICC.
“We’re obviously concerned that this comes right after concrete steps taken by the government of Burundi to withdraw and that this is broadly fitting into the collective narrative around withdrawal and dissatisfaction with the ICC,” said Netsanet Belay, Amnesty International’s research and advocacy director for Africa. “This move will be viewed with a great deal of interest, and it does set an unfortunate precedent.”
South African officials suggested that the 54-nation African Union would be a better body to adjudicate international crimes in the region. But critics argue that the group has proved to be weak and often disorganized in conducting foreign affairs and is unlikely to develop an effective judicial arm.
The 1994 Rwandan genocide underscored the importance of a global court in which war criminals could be tried, and most African leaders agreed with the value of such an institution in the wake of that bloodshed. But many of those same leaders were outspoken about the court’s subsequent focus on African indictments.
ICC officials, disputing critics who say they are targeting African leaders, point out that the court chooses only a portion of the caseload. Some cases are referred by the U.N. Security Council, and others come at the request of the countries themselves.
In a statement, the African National Congress, South Africa’s governing party, said the country’s decision to leave the ICC reflected the belief that the court had “long diverted from its mandate” and was now pursuing the “imperialist agendas” of foreign nations.
That sentiment is shared by African nations such as Kenya, whose president, Uhuru Kenyatta, and vice president, William Ruto, were indicted for allegedly inciting post-election violence in 2007. Both of those cases were later dismissed as witnesses withdrew, allegedly under pressure from Kenyatta supporters.
Mahr reported from Johannesburg.