By Laura Truesdell, Blog Writer
South Africa has taken the bold step of notifying the United Nations that they have begun the formal process to sever their ties with the International Criminal Court (ICC). This news follows Burundi having also given formal notice of its withdrawal from the Rome Statute, and precedes Gambia who is now following suit. South Africa cited its continued membership as being in conflict with its own domestic laws, which allow for the granting of diplomatic immunity to leaders of other countries.
The UN is said to be shocked by the news, but in retrospect there have been warning signs and rumblings coming from the African continent for awhile. The ICC has been plagued by accusations of bias against African states that make up the bulk of the case load before the court, which culminated in the African Union earlier this year endorsing the proposal that countries leave the ICC. African leaders are becoming increasingly vocal about their growing frustration with the ICC. Kenya’s President Kenyatta, having himself once been under investigation by the ICC, has labelled the court to be a frivolous distraction to African governments, and Ugandan President Museveni is preparing to propose a mass African exodus at the African Union summit in January. Another legitimate criticism levelled at the ICC in recent months is the lack of protection of witnesses who come forward. The court has had to deal with the public exposure of a witness list, accusations of witness tampering levelled at the accused on trial, and having key witnesses retract their statements owing to the court’s limited ability to protect them.
In response to the bias allegations, the ICC points to the court’s active preliminary examinations underway in Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Palestine and Ukraine. It should further be noted that African governments themselves have been actively referring cases to the ICC since its inception in 2002. However with a country like South Africa giving formal notice, there are concerns that this could create a landslide of other nations around the world following suit, and damage progress towards human rights victories that the ICC has been able to make, such as establishing that rape during conflict is open to be investigated as a war crime. Perhaps encouraging signs that the ICC has not completely failed the African continent yet is the voice of Botswana, who released a statement reiterating their support for the ICC. This was echoed by the Justice Minister of Senegal who publicly encouraged South Africa and Burundi to reconsider their withdrawal.
The ICC, still in its infancy by international legal standards, needs to do more to bolster its legitimacy. This will be hard to do when heavyweights such as Russia, the United States and China are not signatories to the Rome Statute. Overall it is important to recall that the true purpose of the ICC is not to cater to politics, but to bring justice to victims of horrific crimes against humanity from all over the world.
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