JOHANNESBURG – Until this week, no country had withdrawn from the International Criminal Court. Now two African states, South Africa and Burundi, have made official decisions to leave. Concerns are high that more African countries now will act on years of threats to pull out amid accusations that the court unfairly focuses on the continent. Here's a look at what it all means.
SOMEONE TO TAKE ON GENOCIDE
Many in the international community cheered when the treaty to create the ICC, the Rome Statute, was adopted in 1998 as a way to pursue some of the world's worst atrocities: genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Not all countries signed on, and before this week's decisions by Burundi and South Africa, the treaty had 124 states parties. Notable countries that have not become states parties include the United States, China, Russia and India. Some countries are wary of the court's powers, seeing it as potential interference. The court is based in The Hague, Netherlands, in a new purpose-built headquarters that opened earlier this year.
THE TRAVELS OF AL-BASHIR
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has become a symbol of the limitations facing the ICC, which does not have a police force and relies on the cooperation of member states. Al-Bashir has been wanted by the tribunal for alleged genocide and other crimes in Sudan's Darfur region after the U.N. Security Council first referred the case to the ICC in 2005. Since then, however, al-Bashir has visited a number of ICC member states, including Malawi, Kenya, Chad and Congo. His visit to South Africa in July 2015 caused uproar and he quickly left as a court there ordered his arrest. The ICC has no power to compel countries to arrest people and can only tell them they have a legal obligation to do it.
AFRICAN FRUSTRATIONS, AND THREATS
Only Africans have been charged in the six ICC cases that are ongoing or about to begin, though preliminary ICC investigations have been opened elsewhere in the world. One case that caused considerable anger among African leaders was the ICC's pursuit of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta for his alleged role in the deadly violence that erupted after his country's 2007 presidential election. The case later collapsed amid prosecution claims of interference with witnesses and non-cooperation by Kenyan authorities. The African Union has called for immunity from prosecution for heads of state, and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni at his inauguration in May — with al-Bashir in attendance — declared the ICC to be "useless."
Burundi kicked off the ICC departures this month when lawmakers overwhelmingly voted to leave the tribunal, just months after the court announced it would investigate recent political violence there. President Pierre Nkurunziza signed the bill on Tuesday. Now South Africa is deciding to leave as well, objecting to what it reportedly calls "perceptions of inequality and unfairness in the practice of the ICC." With one of Africa's most developed countries now pulling out, observers are waiting to see whether more states follow.