South Africa to leave the International Criminal Court

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South Africa's President Jacob Zuma (R) and his Somali counterpart Hassan Sheikh Mohamud talk during the extraordinary session of the African Union's Assembly of Heads of State and Government on the case of African Relationship with the International Criminal Court (ICC), in Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, October 12, 2013. Africa has agreed that sitting heads of state should not be tried by the ICC where Kenya's leaders are in the dock, ministers said before African leaders opened a summit on Saturday. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri (ETHIOPIA - Tags: CRIME LAW POLITICS) - RTX148Q8

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HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: The United Nations’ Human Rights Council in Geneva voted yesterday to start a formal inquiry into the Syrian government’s bombardment of Aleppo, with the U.N.’s top envoy to Syria saying the military strikes on the city, aided by Russia, may amount to war crimes.  The probe could eventually lead to a trial before the International Criminal Court, which was established in 2002 to investigate and prosecute wartime atrocities.

However, the court received a vote of no confidence yesterday when South Africa announced it will withdraw from the court’s oversight.  It’s the second nation to do so — the other is Burundi — and it is unclear how many countries might follow their lead.  The court has 124 member nations, including 34 in Africa.

Joining me now to discuss South Africa’s move and how damaging it might be is Andrew Meldrum, the acting Africa editor for “The Associated Press”.  He’s in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Thanks for joining us.

So, why did South Africa take this step?

ANDREW MELDRUM, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS: South Africa made the decision to leave the International Criminal Court because it did not like the court’s decision that South Africa should have arrested the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, when he visited South Africa more than a year ago.  And South Africa said the court should not be telling it to arrest sitting heads of state.  There should have been diplomatic immunity.  And so, they said they don’t like that — what they called interference — from the ICC.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Coming on the heels of the withdrawal from Burundi, is this part of a larger trend?

ANDREW MELDRUM: Well, that — there are many that are worried that this — that the two African — that the decision of the two African countries to leave the ICC this week could set off a movement where several other African countries withdraw from the ICC.

Already, the African Union, which represents all 54 countries of Africa, has said that they don’t think that the ICC should press charges against any sitting head of state.  And Uganda’s deputy foreign minister has said that he would like to see this issue of African members being in the ICC be brought up at the next African Union meeting.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, why is this happening among African nations and not everywhere else?  Do they feel disproportionately prosecuted?

ANDREW MELDRUM: That is the complaint, in fact.  All six current prosecutions or prosecutions in the process are of Africans, and there, so far, the ICC has not indicted or pressed charges against any other people from any other part world.  They do have the — the ICC does have investigations pending against leaders of Colombia and Afghanistan, but so far, no charges have been pressed.

And so, African leaders have said — they’ve complained for a couple of years now or more, that it’s only Africans that the ICC is pressing charges against, and they think that that is unfair.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And now, to be clear, the United States is a signatory, but it has not ratified.  It is not an active member of the ICC.  So, if these nations start to withdraw, what happens to the overall weight that the ICC carries?

ANDREW MELDRUM: I think that it could tremendously weaken.  There are many human rights activists and others, legal, international law experts who say this could seriously weaken the ICC.  As you say, the United States is not a full member.  There are other countries that are not full members.  Russia and China, Israel are amongst the others.

And the ICC is at a point where it wants to increase its membership to get all members in the world, all countries in the world to sign.  And at this point, now, it is backtracking or it is losing members.  And it is losing members from Africa which is an important sign of its legitimacy throughout the world.  So, it could be a really significant blow to the ICC.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right.  Andrew Meldrum of “The Associated Press” joining us from Johannesburg tonight — thanks so much.

ANDREW MELDRUM: Thank you.

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