PRETORIA (REUTERS) – South Africa said on Friday (Oct 21) it was quitting the International Criminal Court (ICC) because membership conflicted with diplomatic immunity laws, dealing a new blow to the struggling court and angering the political opposition.
Pretoria last year announced its intention to leave after the ICC criticised it for ignoring a court order to arrest Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who is accused of genocide and war crimes, when he visited. Mr Bashir has denied the accusations.
The ICC was not immediately available for comment, but the announcement puts new pressure on the world’s first permanent war crimes court, which has had to fight off allegations of pursuing a neo-colonial agenda in Africa, where all but one of its 10 investigations have been based.
Burundi has already said it plans to leave and Kenya’s Parliament is considering following suit.
Justice Minister Michael Masutha told reporters in Pretoria that the government would draft a bill to repeal South Africa’s adoption of the ICC’s Rome Statute in order to preserve its ability to conduct active diplomatic relations, and had given formal notice.
He said the statute conflicted with South Africa’s Diplomatic Immunities and Privileges Act, but that the government remained committed to the fight against impunity.
A document seen by Reuters at the United Nations on Thursday (Oct 20) showed the move would take effect one year after notice was formally received by Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon.
The document was signed by International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane and dated October 19.
Mr James Selfe, a senior executive at the main opposition Democratic Alliance, said the party would file a court application on Friday to set aside the plans “on the grounds that it is unconstitutional, irrational and procedurally flawed”.
Former South African judge Richard Goldstone, a respected figure in international justice and former chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, said quitting the ICC was “demeaning” to the country.
“From a moral standpoint, it detracts from the inspiring legacy of the administration of President Nelson Mandela that so strongly supported the ICC,” said Mr Goldstone, chairman of the advisory board of the coalition for the ICC, which provides strategic guidance on key issues.
The court, which sits in The Hague and has 124 member states, is the first legal body with permanent international jurisdiction to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
But it has secured only five substantive verdicts in its 14-year history, all of them on African suspects, and several African countries have expressed concern that the continent is being picked on.
In January, the African Union backed a proposal by Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta for officials of various member states to “develop a road map” on possible withdrawal from the Rome Statute. The decision was not legally binding as the final decision to leave the ICC would be taken by individual nations.
A high-profile attempt to try Mr Kenyatta, and his deputy, Mr William Ruto, over post-election violence failed amid diplomatic lobbying and allegations of witness intimidation.
Mr Adan Duale, leader of the majority in the Kenyan Parliament, said impetus was building there to pass a bill on quitting the ICC that has been slowly making its way through the assembly.
Burundi’s Parliament voted last week to leave the court, although the United Nations has not yet been officially notified.
Mr Masutha said Pretoria would now drop its appeal to the Constitutional Court against a ruling that the state had made an error in letting Mr Bashir leave the country.
In June 2015, Mr Bashir, who was in Johannesburg for an African Union summit, was allowed to leave even though a court had ordered that he be kept in South Africa until the end of a hearing on whether he should be detained under a global arrest warrant.
The High Court ruled that he should have been arrested to face genocide charges at the ICC because, as a signatory of the Rome Statute, Pretoria was obliged to implement arrest warrants.
The government lost an appeal at the Supreme Court in March and the appeal to the Constitutional Court was its last chance of overturning the ruling.