JOHANNESBURG – Until last week, no country had withdrawn from the International Criminal Court. Now, three African states — South Africa, Burundi and Gambia — have made official decisions to leave. Gambia announced its decision late Tuesday. 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 as of last week, the treaty had 124 member states. Notable countries that have not joined include the United States, China, Russia and India. Some countries are wary of The Hague, Netherlands-based court's powers, seeing it as potential interference.
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, in places like Colombia and Afghanistan. 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."
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 June 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.
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 last week. South Africa last week announced it would leave as well, saying that handing a leader over to the ICC would amount to interference in another country's affairs. It's a dramatic turnaround for a country that was an early supporter of the court's creation in the years after South Africa emerged from white minority rule and near-global isolation. With one of Africa's most developed countries now pulling out, observers feared that more states would follow — and now Gambia is doing so.
NOT AN IMMEDIATE DEPARTURE
Withdrawal doesn't happen when a country announces it. The country must officially notify the U.N. secretary-general of its intention to leave, and the pullout becomes effective one year after the receipt of that notice. So far, the U.N. has said it has received South Africa's notice, and the one-year countdown started Wednesday. Countries still have to cooperate with any ICC proceedings that begin before withdrawal takes effect.