Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1317, (27 October - 2 November 2016)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1317, (27 October - 2 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

South Africa walks out

South Africa is officially withdrawing from the International Criminal Court, the first nation to do so, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

Assessing the cost of South Africa’s governing African National Congress (ANC) government’s threat for the country to withdraw its membership from the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague has ramifications throughout Africa.

The threat has sharply focussed minds on whether the ICC is indeed biased against Africa. African leaders have spent the last two decades trying not to think about a pattern of behaviour familiar to the world – predominantly African leaders being judged by the ICC.

There was Serbia’s former president Slobodan Milosevic and other Serbian “war criminals”. But no Western European leader or leaders from the United States have ever been put on trial by the ICC.

The prospect of South Africa leaving the ICC has already raised difficult questions for the continent, and other African nations may follow suit. However, so far they have shied away from withdrawing from the ICC, and in 2013 Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, himself indicted by the ICC, did not endorse withdrawal from the court.

There are no precedents for South Africa’s decision, though Burundi has said that it intends to quit, and the African Union (AU) has urged member states not to cooperate with the ICC, accusing it of bias against Africa.

“The issue of prosecuting sitting heads of state from other countries can only imply that South Africa chooses to be complicit in the practice of forced regime change” by cooperating with the ICC, South African Justice Minister Michael Masutha said.

Chairman of the ANC’s commission on international relations Obed Bapela said that the ICC had “lost direction”. As far as many are concerned in Africa, United States presidents George Bush, Bill Clinton and even Barack Obama are “war criminals”. So are British prime ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron. Why are they not brought to book, some ask.

But certain influential figures have urged South Africa to hold back on the question of international justice. “The withdrawal of South Africa from the ICC creates a deplorable stain on the country’s post-apartheid reputation and credibility,” said Dimitris Christopoulos, president of the International Federation for Human Rights.

The background of the decision by South Africa to withdraw from the ICC also needs to be carefully examined. Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir was allowed to attend an AU Summit in South Africa last year despite being wanted by the ICC on charges of genocide and war crimes.

South Africa ignored the ICC demand that Al-Bashir be arrested and handed over to the authorities in the Netherlands. South Africa had “to balance its obligations to the ICC with its obligations to the AU and individual states,” the South African government tweeted.

Many other African nations have condoned the South African decision to withdraw from the ICC. The larger context for South Africa’s decision is to avoid being labelled as neo-colonial. Western powers still control virtually all the key levers of economic and political power on the international stage. As a consequence, African nations, and other nations in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, are resentful.

Western nations often try to get the upper hand, and they often succeed. Western powers decide who to go after at the ICC, and they make sure they are punished. Yet, African countries were actively involved in the establishment of the ICC and the Rome Statute setting it up when negotiations began more than 20 years ago.

The fact that the ICC has now been discredited on many fronts is not surprising. The pushback against neo-colonialism may be stronger than the international powers think. After all, no fewer than 30 African states have ratified the Rome Statute, making Africa the most heavily represented region in the ICC’s membership.

Moreover, no fewer than 800 African civil society organisations are members of the Coalition for the International Criminal Court (CICC), representing approximately one-third of the Coalition’s global membership. African ire over the ICC is thus a result of the Court being perceived as trampling on the sovereignty of African nations rather than as a result of its underlying aims.

At least 21 African countries have national coalitions for the ICC that actively work on implementing Rome Statute provisions into national legislation and strengthening the ICC’s activities in Africa. South Africa’s decision has raised fears internationally, yet it is matched by a growing taste for power among the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries on how the world should be run.

The impression of many decision-makers in Africa, and the BRICS, is that the ICC has turned a blind eye to the atrocities committed by warmongers in Europe and the United States. Rwandan President Paul Kagame has called for the ICC to indict the BBC for a documentary denying the genocide that took place in 1994 in the East African nation, for example.

The BBC documentary, entitled Rwanda: The Untold Story, was a controversial programme that had ripple effects throughout Africa and in particular in the Great Lakes region of the continent.

Another charge is that the ICC has not indicted war crimes suspects such as Israeli leaders for the atrocities committed against the Palestinian people. Palestine joined the ICC last year, and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas signed the Rome Statute in 2015.

In short, South Africa’s decision to withdraw from the ICC reflects a general perception in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America that the power of the purse directs the ICC rather than any real commitment to international justice.

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