South Africa announced Friday that it is withdrawing from the International Criminal Court, dealing a major blow to a troubled institution set up to try the world’s worst crimes.
South Africa’s decision followed a dispute last year when Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir visited the country for an African Union summit despite facing an ICC arrest warrant over alleged war crimes.
Justice Minister Michael Masutha told reporters in Pretoria that the court was “inhibiting South Africa’s ability to honour its obligations relating to the granting of diplomatic immunity”.
The ICC, set up in 2002, is often accused of targeting African leaders and has also struggled with a lack of cooperation, including from the United States which has signed the court’s treaty but never ratified it.
South Africa would be the first country to leave the court.
The withdrawal “shows startling disregard for justice from a country long seen as a global leader on accountability for victims of the gravest crimes,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
“It’s important both for South Africa and the region that this runaway train be slowed down and South Africa’s hard-won legacy of standing with victims of mass atrocities be restored.”
South Africa’s failure as an ICC signatory to arrest Bashir last year led to a wave of condemnation, which was met with an early threat from the government to withdraw from The Hague-based court.
Bashir has evaded arrest since his ICC indictment in 2009 for alleged war crimes in Sudan’s Darfur conflict in which 300,000 people were killed and two million forced to flee their homes.
Several African governments say the ICC has shown a post-colonial bias against the continent’s leaders, and opposition to the court has grown in recent years.
Earlier this month Burundi said it would withdraw, and Namibia and Kenya have also raised the possibility.
South Africa, which delivered a letter to the United Nations on Wednesday to activate its formal withdrawal, is likely to complete the process in one year.
The Democratic Alliance, the country’s main opposition party, immediately launched a legal appeal, describing withdrawal as “unconstitutional, irrational and procedurally flawed”.
“The decision... shows the depth of impunity and disregard for the rule of law within the ANC (ruling party),” it said.
“Clearly (Foreign Minister Maite) Nkoana-Mashabane has taken her lead from President Jacob Zuma.”
In March, South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal accused Zuma’s government of “disgraceful conduct” over Bashir’s visit and ruled that the failure to arrest Bashir was unlawful.
The government was taking the case to the Constitutional Court next month, but said Friday’s decision meant the legal battle would be dropped.
Bashir was not arrested while attending the African Union summit in Johannesburg because South Africa claimed he had immunity as the head of a member state.
During the summit, an emergency order was obtained from the High Court ordering Bashir’s arrest, but government lawyers admitted he had quickly flown out of the country just before the order was issued.
“South Africa remains committed to the fight against impunity and to hold those who have committed crimes against humanity and other serious crimes accountable,” Justice Minister Masutha said.
This month, the ICC found former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba and four aides guilty of bribing witnesses.
The case at the court in The Hague was the first such corruption trial in its history.
Its chief prosecutor also recently sent a team to the Democratic Republic of Congo to urge restraint after weeks of deadly unrest.