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South Africa to Exit Int’l Criminal Court

South Africa

South Africa has begun the process of exiting the International Criminal Court and has informed the United Nations of its decision. The development raises concerns over other African nations leaving it and undermining a human rights tribunal accused by some leaders of unfairly targeting the continent.

A document called the “Instrument of Withdrawal” signed by the South African foreign minister describes the nation’s problems, echoing other nations, most recently Burundi that have left.

“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,” the document reads, according to the BBC

The withdrawal from the ICC is unprecedented until now. But the exit will likely be heavily debated at the African Union summit in January. Oryem Okello, deputy foreign minister of Uganda, a critic of the ICC said nations believe “the matter is best decided as a bloc.”

Withdrawal takes effect a year after the U.N. secretary-general is formally notified. U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the countdown for South Africa started on Wednesday. Countries have to cooperate with any ICC proceedings that begin before withdrawal takes effect.

South Africa’s announcement is “devastating” for the ICC, said Mark Kersten, a Britain-based researcher.

“It is unclear if other states will follow South Africa’s lead, but it is clear that states are more likely to followSouth Africa’s lead than Burundi, with whom many African states have tensions,” Kersten wrote in an email to The Associated Press. Kenya, Namibia and Uganda are among the countries that have indicated interest in leaving, he said.

The possible departure of more countries “really questions whether or not the court is going to survive because it simply will not have the number of countries that it needs in order to be seen as legitimate and international,” said Mark Ellis, executive director of the International Bar Association.

Many African countries were supportive of the court’s creation partly because of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, but grew uneasy due to ICC scrutiny of national leaders. Under the Rome Statute that created the court, signatory countries have a legal obligation to arrest anyone sought by the tribunal.

The treaty is “in conflict and inconsistent with” South Africa’s diplomatic immunity law, Michael Masutha, the minister of justice, told reporters Friday.

South Africa’s parliament is likely to pass the bill. The ruling African National Congress party holds a majority of seats, and its parliament office welcomed the decision, saying “the ICC has allowed non-member states to dictate and interfere with its work to suit their own imperialist agendas.”

The ICC, based in The Hague, Netherlands, had 124 member states before Burundi’s move. The United States, China, Russia and Israel are among non-members.