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South Africa Announces Withdrawal From International Criminal Court

The case file against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is seen at the North Gauteng High court in Pretoria, South Africa, in June 2015 as a judge criticized the government for allowing Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court, to leave the country. Now South Africa has announced it is leaving the ICC.

South Africa has decided to withdraw from the International Criminal Court, after previously ignoring an ICC arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

Reuters and The Associated Press both say they have seen a document, signed by South Africa's foreign minister, declaring the country's intent to withdraw. The AP reports that legislation to finalize the move has to pass South Africa's parliament, but notes that passage of such a bill is likely.

Just days ago, Burundi became the first country ever to withdraw from the ICC. The country's parliament overwhelmingly approved the proposal, and the president signed it into law on Tuesday.

That's two ground-breaking moves to depart from the war crimes court in just one week. The AP notes there are concerns that more African countries will opt to leave the court given longstanding objections to the ICC's focus on the continent — every person tried by the ICC has been African. (Other trials for war crimes and genocide have been carried out by ad hoc tribunals pulled together for a specific conflict, such as those created for Yugoslavia and Cambodia.)

"South Africa was an early supporter and advocate of the court and its withdrawal announcement marks probably the biggest setback yet for the ICC," NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports. "Predictions say Kenya will likely be next."

Both Burundi and South Africa have objections to the court that extend beyond its regional focus. Earlier this year, the ICC launched an investigation into killings, sexual assault and torture in Burundi, humanitarian news agency IRIN reports. Burundian officials accused the court of being an "instrument" to destabilize low-income countries.

South Africa's departure, meanwhile, is prompted by the country's objections to a warrant for the arrest of Bashir, who was indicted by the ICC in 2009 on charges of war crimes and genocide in Darfur.

The ICC cannot arrest individuals itself; it relies on countries who participate in the court to make arrests. And, the AP notes, it has no enforcement mechanisms to compel countries to carry out their legal obligations.

Last year, Bashir flew to South Africa for a summit. The South African government declined to arrest him, saying they had granted immunity to all heads of state at the summit.

A South African court ruled that the country was obligated to arrest Bashir, but he left the country without an arrest.

Explaining the country's withdrawal from the court, a South African minister says the government does not want to carry out ICC arrest warrants which amount to "regime change," the BBC reports.

The AP has some essential background on the history of the court, and the context for African objections to the tribunal:

"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 Hague, Netherlands-based court's powers, seeing it as potential interference. ...

"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.'"

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