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Court Blocks South Africa's Withdrawal From International Criminal Court

The International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, has been accused of bias against Africans.
Mike Corder
The International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, has been accused of bias against Africans.

A South African court has ruled that the country's bid to withdraw from the International Criminal Court is "unconstitutional and invalid," in a stark rebuke to the government of President Jacob Zuma.

"South Africa's justice minister shocked the country last October when he announced it would pull out of the International Criminal Court," Peter Granitz reports for NPR from Pretoria. He notes that it was especially surprising because South Africa was a founding member of the court, which prosecutes war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Wednesday's court order from the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria focused on how South Africa initiated its withdrawal from the ICC's treaty, the Rome Statute. The court said the executive did not have the power to do so without prior parliamentary approval.

"What is so pressing for the national executive about the withdrawal from the Rome Statute which cannot wait for our legislative processes (and possibly judicial pronouncements) to take their course?" the ruling read. "This unexplained haste, in our view, itself constitutes procedural irrationality."

The court did not rule on whether South Africa should withdraw from the treaty, stating that the decision is "policy-laden, and one residing in the heartland of the national executive in the exercise of foreign policy, international relations and treaty-making."

The Democratic Alliance, the opposition party which filed the case, called the outcome a "victory for the rule of law." It stated that "South Africa does not want to be lumped together with pariah states who have no respect for human rights and who do not subscribe to accountability for those guilty of the most heinous human rights violations."

South Africa announced its intention to leave the court after the government "refused to detain indicted war criminal Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir at an African Union summit in 2015, despite an ICC warrant for his arrest," NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton explained. It takes one year for a withdrawal to take effect after initial notification, according to the terms of the Rome Statute.

South Africa made its announcement last year amid accusations that the court is biased against Africans, as The Two-Way has reported:

"Every person tried by the ICC since the treaty creating it was adopted in 1998 has been African.

"Other war crimes trials have been carried out by ad hoc tribunals created after a specific conflict, such as those created for Yugoslavia and Cambodia, or for the Nuremberg trials conducted after World War II."

Gambia and Burundi also announced last year that they were withdrawing from the court, but Gambia's new leader reversed that decision earlier this month.

In South Africa, the current government has vowed to continue its efforts to pull out of the ICC. "The intention to withdraw still stands, as this is a policy decision of the executive," Justice Minister Michael Masutha told Reuters.

As the BBC reports, "the government may choose to appeal the judgment, or it may simply do as the judges ordered and take the proposal to parliament where the governing African National Congress (ANC) continues to enjoy a comfortable majority."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.