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South Africa’s war crime court withdrawal a setback for global justice

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Although South Africa is no longer an apartheid nation, the African National Congress (ANC) which fought the White Apartheid regime before the ANC taking state power in 1990 is turning out to be morally deficient and incapable of governing, especially when it comes to issues of justice, poverty reduction, and transparency.  A clarion realization of this is the Southern African state desire to quit the International Criminal Court.

According to reliable sources, South Africa has formally begun the process of withdrawing from the International Criminal Court (ICC), notifying the UN of its decision.

In 2015, the leadership of the South African government had a diplomatic conflict with the international community when the country willfully refused to arrest Sudan’s leader during a meeting.  South Africa did not want to execute ICC arrest warrants which would lead to “regime change,” a minister said.

Last year, a South African court criticized the government for refusing to arrest Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, a noted war crime criminal.

President Omar al-Bashir was in South Africa for a meeting of African leaders in 2015
President Omar al-Bashir was in South Africa for a meeting of African leaders in 2015

He is wanted by the ICC on charges of genocide and war crimes.

Mr. Bashir was attending an African Union summit in Johannesburg when the government ignored an ICC request to arrest him.

He denies allegations that he committed atrocities in Sudan’s troubled western Darfur region.

Several media outlets say they have obtained a copy of the “Instrument of Withdrawal,” signed by South Africa’s foreign minister.

“The Republic of South Africa has found that its obligations with respect to the peaceful resolution of conflicts at times are incompatible with the interpretation given by the International Criminal Court,” the document says.

The country’s justice minister Michael Masutha said at a press conference that the government would table legislation in Parliament to withdraw South Africa from the ICC.

The Rome Statute, under which the ICC was set up, required the arrest of heads of state for whom a warrant was issued.

The consequence of this would be “regime change” and the statute was incompatible with South African legislation which gave heads of state diplomatic immunity, he added.

The ICC has a particularly fractious relationship with the African continent. Despite 34 African nations voluntarily signing up to the court’s jurisdiction – in recent years a handful of governments have decided their idea of international justice is incompatible with that set out in the Rome Statute.

When the Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta was charged with crimes against humanity, the African Union argued that heads of state should be entitled to immunity for the duration of their term in office, a direct contravention of the ICC’s raison d’etre to hold the most powerful to account. The trial against Mr. Kenyatta later collapsed because of a lack of evidence.

There were almost farcical scenes when the Sudanese president attended a summit in Johannesburg at the invitation of the African Union, then disappeared during dinner after resounding calls from human rights groups for South Africa to uphold its obligation as a member of the ICC to detain him in line with the outstanding arrest warrant.

It seems this divided loyalty between the competing demands of AU and ICC has driven South Africa to initiate the process of pulling out. Nine out of 10 of the ICC’s current investigations are in Africa – leading to allegations of bias against African countries.

So is this the beginning of the end of the world’s first permanent war crimes court? The answer will partly depend on whether this withdrawal generates a domino effect.

Several international organizations including Human Rights Watch have criticized the South Africa’s decision.

“South Africa’s proposed withdrawal from the International Criminal Court 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, the NGO’s Africa division senior researcher.

“It’s important both for South Africa and the region that this runaway train is slowed down and South Africa’s hard-won legacy of standing with victims of mass atrocities be restored,” Mr. Mavhinga said.

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