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The decision by South Africa to leave the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court is an extremely significant, and worrying, development.
According to media reports, the government in Pretoria will soon begin the formal process of exiting the Rome Statute.
International relations and Cooperation minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane was quoted as arguing that the provisions of the Rome Statute are in conflict with South African law, particularly the statute giving heads of state immunity from prosecution.
We have heard this argument before. In Kenya, one of the principal objections to the ICC’s investigation of the campaign of killings and displacements that followed the 2007 election was that it was targeting elected leaders that had been given the mandate to lead the country through an election.
The Kenyan government successfully made this case at heads of state summits of the African Union. One would have hoped, however, that the matter was concluded when both Kenyan cases at the ICC collapsed.
Developments in the past week show that is not the case. The decision by Burundi, in the grip of Pierre Nkurunziza’s murderous administration, to pull out of the Rome Statute was not especially surprising.
The South African decision is a major development. That country has long been viewed as one of the more progressive ones on the continent. Its struggle to overcome the unjust Apartheid system captured the imagination of people well beyond the continent.
Its leaders were upset by criticism for the failure to arrest Sudan’s Omar el-Bashir when he visited the country but there are no active investigations targeting South Africa.
The decision to pull out of the ICC could serve as a signal to many other countries to take the same cue. Already, it has been reported that Kenya could be next in line.
That would be a mistake. The ICC is certainly not perfect. The focus of the Office of the Prosecutor on Africa has drawn legitimate concern about a lack of even-handedness.
But the court plays the essential role of serving as a check against individuals who feel they can cling to power by committing crimes against humanity, war crimes and acts of genocide. The ICC is the only recourse for victims in such contexts.
African countries can fight for reform of the court within its institutions, including in the Assembly of State Parties. Pulling out is wrong and short-sighted.
Copyright 2016 actualité africaine