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Burundi Promised More Countries Would Withdraw from the ICC. Now South Africa Has.

Now that Burundi and South Africa have moved to leave the ICC, more African countries are expected to follow.

Den Haag, NETHERLANDS:  People enter the International Criminal Court, 20 June 2006 in the Hague. Former Liberian president Charles Taylor was today en route to the Netherlands for trial for war crimes. Taylor will be kept in the same jail that held Yugoslav ex-president Slobodan Milosevic. Taylor faces 11 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity arising from the decade-long civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone. As soon as he arrives, the former President will be transferred to the detention unit of the International Criminal Court (ICC) which shares a prison with the UN court which tried Milosevic, known as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). AFP PHOTO ANP JUAN VRIJDAG   ** NETHERLANDS OUT **  (Photo credit should read JUAN VRIJDAG/AFP/Getty Images)
Den Haag, NETHERLANDS: People enter the International Criminal Court, 20 June 2006 in the Hague. Former Liberian president Charles Taylor was today en route to the Netherlands for trial for war crimes. Taylor will be kept in the same jail that held Yugoslav ex-president Slobodan Milosevic. Taylor faces 11 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity arising from the decade-long civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone. As soon as he arrives, the former President will be transferred to the detention unit of the International Criminal Court (ICC) which shares a prison with the UN court which tried Milosevic, known as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). AFP PHOTO ANP JUAN VRIJDAG ** NETHERLANDS OUT ** (Photo credit should read JUAN VRIJDAG/AFP/Getty Images)

Last year, when Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir visited Johannesburg for a regional summit, the International Criminal Court expected South Africa’s government to arrest him. After all, Bashir was indicted by the ICC in 2009 on charges he was responsible for genocide and other war crimes in Darfur, and as a member of the ICC treaty, it was up to South African officials to detain him.

But South Africa refused, saying it had promised immunity to all visiting heads of state. The move signaled the continent’s growing distrust of the international court, as leaders in many African nations feel the court unfairly targets Africans. Now, more than a year after the rebuff, South Africa has moved to leave the treaty that founded it.

A document presented to the United Nations on Oct. 19 says that “the Republic of 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.” It is signed by South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana Mashabana.

The South African Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Justice Minister Michael Masutha confirmed to reporters in the capital of Pretoria that the country was pursuing plans to withdraw itself from the court.

“A difficult choice had to be made,” he said.

The decision to withdraw immediately follows Burundi’s decision to do the same. Last week, Burundi, where civil unrest has forced hundreds of thousands to flee as refugees, became the first country in the world to withdraw from the treaty that founded the court in 1998. Its parliament voted overwhelmingly in favor of leaving and Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza has since signed a decree to legalize the withdrawal, though the United Nations has reportedly not yet received confirmation of the departure. It takes one year from the date of receipt for the withdrawal to be official.

At the time, Burundian Ambassador to Washington Ernest Ndabashinze told FP that authorities were “very happy” to be leaving, and promised that other countries would follow.

Many believe that Kenya will be next, in large part because much of the disenchantment among African leaders comes from the ICC’s probe into President Uhuru Kenyatta’s role in post-election violence in 2007. The case has since collapsed, but the incident smeared Kenyatta’s reputation and prompted discussion among African leaders to consider leaving the court.

Burundi has its own reasons for wanting to leave: Earlier this year, ICC prosecutors began investigating the government’s alleged role in extrajudicial killings there.

Photo credit: JUAN VRIJDAG/AFP/Getty Images

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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