South Africa said Friday it will withdraw from the International Criminal Court at The Hague, raising fears of an African exodus from a tribunal established to prosecute the worst crimes against humanity.
Human rights activists quickly expressed dismay that South Africa's governing African National Congress, known for its iconic struggle against apartheid, had rejected the court and its central tenet that no matter how powerful the perpetrators of the worst abuses, they could still face international justice.
Simon Adams from the New York- and Geneva-based Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect, tweeted that it was "a terrible decision for South Africa.
"This decision strengthens the hand of mass atrocity perpetrators everywhere and lengthens the dark shadow of impunity," he said.
Adams said the struggle against apartheid in South Africa had been a global one, adding that South Africa's former president Nelson Mandela had placed human rights at the center of his country's foreign policy when he was leader.
South Africa's announcement came days after the East African nation of Burundi said it would quit the court, raising fears that some of the court's other vehement critics in Africa, like Kenya and Uganda, would also pull out.
The ICC began operating in 2002, four years after the signing of its founding instrument, the Rome Statute. It initially had widespread support in Africa, who made up 34 of its 124 signatories (before the recent withdrawals).
But after prosecutors pursued cases against sitting presidents – Sudan's Omar Bashir and Kenya's Uhuru Kenyatta – African leaders began to complain that the court was biased against the continent.
One of the court's biggest weaknesses has been its inability to arrest Bashir, who was indicted 11 years ago for alleged crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. The lack of action has been blamed, in part, on countries – including South Africa – that signed the Rome Statute and were obliged to arrest Bashir, yet refused to do so.
Bashir visited South Africa last year for an African Union summit and was able to leave the country, despite a High Court order for his arrest.
"The Republic of South Africa has found that its obligations with respect to the peaceful resolution of global conflicts at times are incompatible with the interpretation given by the International Criminal Court of obligations contained in the Rome Statute," South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said in a letter informing the United Nations secretary-general of the country's intention to withdraw from the court in one year's time.
The court has also been weakened by the refusal of major powers such as the United States, Russia and China to join it.
South Africa's decision was criticized by rights groups in South Africa who said that legally the country couldn't leave the court without a parliamentary vote. However, Minister of Justice and Corrections Michael Masutha said the government planned to submit a bill to ratify the withdrawal.
Masutha said South Africa would remain a "beacon of light" in upholding human rights, but would pursue this objective through continental bodies such as the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights.
"South Africa remains committed to the fight against impunity and holding those who have committed crimes against humanity and other serious crimes accountable," he told a news conference in Pretoria.
10:55 a.m.: This article was updated with comment from the South African government.