South Africa withdraws from ICC: what next for human rights and Africa?

South Africa withdraws from ICC: what next for human rights and Africa?

The recent decision made by South Africa to leave the International Criminal Court (ICC) does not come as a shock, but it has been criticized by many, and holds a series of serious geopolitical implications for the politically plagued country.

At the end of October, the South African government announced that it will officially withdraw from the Rome Statute, the founding instrument of the ICC. The move by South Africa came just days after Burundi, an African counterpart, made a similar announcement to withdraw from the court. The exodus from the international body has raised a number of questions about both the workings of the ICC, and the future of human rights and justice in South Africa and across the African continent.

What does this mean for South Africa?

Although the process of withdrawal from the ICC will take at least one year following the official letter the the UN, there are a number of political implications for South Africa. When South Africa promoted the creation of the ICC and officially ratified the Rome statute in 2002, they had emerged from the turmoil of Apartheid. They had been first hand victims of gross human rights violations, and the government vowed to promote human rights and be an advocate for peace and justice. This decision to withdraw from the ICC seems in contradiction to their national promotion of human rights and strong mechanisms of justice. Human Rights Watch has heavily condemned the decision made by South Africa. This announcement can seriously taint the international community’s view of South Africa as a proponent of human rights and a moral authority in Africa, which will reduce their political capital.

South Africa are also currently amidst a series domestic political crises, and this decision exposes further issues with domestic politics and law. Authorities are still waiting on the constitutional court to make a ruling about whether the government violated international or domestic law, when Omar al-Bashir was allowed the country last year. Despite the motivation for a conflict of national interest, it seems as though the ruling party in South Africa are ignoring this upcoming decision and focusing on what they deem best for the country. By withdrawing from the court, the ruling party seriously undermine any decision made in the constitutional court. Underlying political motivations seem to be creeping in, and once again the legitimacy of the ruling party is brought to book, and the question of whether politics trumps justice needs to be asked.

The official withdrawal announcement was also followed by a heavy criticism from the main opposition party in South Africa. They said that the decision made by government was unconstitutional, and the legitimacy of the unilateral decision will be taken to the constitutional court. This highlights serious issues with the rule of law in South Africa, a problem which seems to be frequently re occurring.

If South Africa goes, will Africa follow?

The motivation given by South Africa to leave the ICC is very much part in parcel with South Africa’s role in Africa. The AU have collectively voiced the concerns about the ICC that South Africa have. It seems as though Africa have lost faith in the body, which was set up to protect their peace and justice. Although Burundi was the first to make the move to leave the ICC, South Africa, who are a strong political leader in Africa, may lead to many other African states following suit. Many have argued that other African nations will see South Africa’s move as an indication that Africa can do without the ICC. On the other hand, there are arguments that the AU are not a cohesive bloc, and lack central organization, which will prevent a mass exodus.

The question pertaining to an alternative methods of promoting and ensuring human rights and justice in Africa is unanswered. South Africa have made it clear that they are still waving the flag of human rights high. South African minister for Justice and Correctional Services has said that South Africa will strengthen its own human rights mechanisms, and will encourage the rest of Africa to do so. The process may also lead to an African Court of Justice, an alternative to the ICC, and something that the AU have struggled to get off the ground in recent years.

Although South Africa face criticism for their withdrawal from the ICC, their views on the ICC and their motivations for leaving, are shared by a number of other African states. The future of both the ICC, and South Africa, as a leading voice of international human rights in Africa, is under serious threat.


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