JOHANNESBURG – South Africa will soon submit a bill in parliament to withdraw from the International Criminal Court, its justice minister said Friday, making the country the second this week, after Burundi, to move to leave the tribunal that pursues the world's worst atrocities.
The bill will propose that South Africa repeal the Rome Statute that created the court because the statute is "in conflict and inconsistent with" the country's diplomatic immunity law, said Michael Masutha, the minister of justice and correctional services.
"A difficult choice had to be made," Masutha said at a news conference.
Under the Rome Statute, countries have a legal obligation to arrest anyone sought by the tribunal.
South Africa's decision raises concerns that states have begun to act on years of threats to leave over what they call the court's disproportionate targeting of the continent.
"It's important both for South Africa and the region that this runaway train be slowed down," Dewa Mavhinga, Human Rights Watch's Africa division senior researcher, said Friday.
South Africa's announcement follows a dispute last year over a visit to the country by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the ICC for alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur.
Al-Bashir was allowed to leave South Africa even though a local court had ordered authorities to prevent him from departing because of the international order for his arrest.
The "legal uncertainty" stemming from the Rome Statute hinders South Africa's goal of promoting the resolution of conflicts through dialogue, which can include hosting adversaries on its soil, Masutha said.
Subjecting the leader of another country to prosecution in a South African court or handing the leader over to the ICC would amount to interference in another country's affairs, according to Masutha.
"One cannot think of a more plausible scenario of forced regime change by one country on another," he said.
A copy of South Africa's "Instrument of Withdrawal," dated Wednesday and signed by Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, was obtained Thursday by The Associated Press.
It states that 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 of obligations contained in the Rome Statute" which established the court.
Observers say a withdrawal from the ICC takes effect a year after the day the U.N. secretary-general is formally notified of a country's intention. Countries still would have to cooperate with any ICC proceedings that begin before the withdrawal takes effect.
Masutha said Africa is strengthening its own human rights institutions, and that South Africa would work with other countries to promote human rights "here and elsewhere in the world."
The International Criminal Court's charges against al-Bashir stem from reported atrocities in the conflict in Darfur in which 300,000 people were killed and 2 million displaced in the government's campaign, according to U.N. figures.
On Tuesday, President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi signed legislation to make his country the first to withdraw from the International Criminal Court, which had said it would investigate recent political violence there.
Burundi's decision to quit the ICC follows a bitter dispute with the international community over the human rights situation in the East African country. More than a year of deadly violence has followed Nkurunziza's controversial decision to pursue a third term, which some have called unconstitutional.
The ICC had 124 member states before Burundi's move.
Some African countries have accused the ICC of disproportionately targeting the continent. Only Africans have been charged in the six cases that are ongoing or about to begin, though preliminary ICC investigations have been opened elsewhere in the world.
The African Union has asked the International Criminal Court to stop proceedings against sitting presidents and has said it will not compel any member states to arrest a leader on behalf of the ICC.
William R. Pace, convenor of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, has pointed out that "African governments overwhelmingly voted for and ratified the ICC treaty, stating that they did not want a repeat of the Rwandan genocide, where there was a breakdown in the rule of law and justice."
The push among some African countries to withdraw from ICC began after the court indicted Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on charges of crimes against humanity for 2007 post-election violence in which more than 1,000 died. The ICC prosecutor said threats to witnesses, bribery and lack of cooperation by Kenya's government led to the case's collapse.
Some countries want a separate African court with jurisdiction over rights abuses.