South Africa to Pull Out of ICC, Potentially Sparking African Exodus

Omar al-Bashir South Africa
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir (C) arrives for a group photograph of leaders at the 25th African Union Summit, Sandton, South Africa, June 14, 2015. A South African court ruled that Bashir, who is subject to an ICC arrest warrant, should have been arrested while in South Africa, but he left the country freely. GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty

South Africa is to withdraw from the International Criminal Court, potentially sparking a mass exodus of African states from the ICC.

Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, the country's foreign minister, sent a document Wednesday to the United Nations. It stated that South Africa had found that "its obligations with respect to the peaceful resolution of conflicts" are incompatible with the "interpretation given by the International Criminal Court" of the Rome Statute, the court's founding charter.

South Africa's justice minister Michael Masutha said Friday that a bill would soon be tabled to the country's parliament on repealing legislation that has adopted the ICC into South African law.

South Africa came into conflict with the ICC in 2015, when it hosted an African Union conference attended by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. The ICC issued an arrest warrant for Bashir in 2008 on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in the Darfur region.

A South African court ruled that Bashir should have been detained, but he was allowed to leave the country freely. The government appealed the court's decision, but South Africa's Supreme Court rejected the appeal in March and said Bashir should have been arrested.

Nkoana-Mashabane's Instrument of Withdrawal, sent to the U.N. Wednesday, stated that South Africa remains "committed to fight impunity and to bring those who commit atrocities and international crimes to justice."

South Africa's decision comes weeks after Burundi's parliament voted to leave The Hague-based court. ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced a preliminary investigation into the situation in Burundi. The country's president, Pierre Nkurunziza, announced his intention to run for a third term in April 2015, sparking a wave of violence in which hundreds of people have been killed. Nkurunziza signed a declaration Tuesday authorizing the decision and saying it would take immediate effect.

The formal process of leaving the ICC requires that the state involved notify the U.N. secretary-general, with the decision effective one year after the notification is received. Burundi has not yet formally notified the U.N. of its decision.

The exits are evidence of a groundswell of discontent among African states with the ICC. Numerous African leaders, including Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and Kenya's Uhuru Kenyatta, have accused the court of being biased against African countries. All four of the trials currently underway, or soon to begin, at the court are trying African suspects, and the four suspects convicted in the court's history since it was established in 2002 are all African.

South Africa's main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, said it would approach the courts to have the withdrawal rescinded. The party claimed that the decision by Nkoana-Mashabane to act unilaterally on the issue "is a disgrace" and that withdrawal from the ICC must first be ratified by the South African parliament.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also criticized the decision. "South Africa's proposed withdrawal from the ICC shows startling disregard for justice from a country long seen as a global leader on accountability for victims of the gravest crimes," said Dewa Mavhinga, head of HRW's South Africa office.