Exterior view of new International Criminal Court building in The Hague. (GETTY/MICHEL PORRO)
October 26, 2016
South Africa has announced plans to break its ties with the International Criminal Court, citing concerns the ICC pursues a disproportionate number of cases against African countries. The news follows the announcement earlier this month by Burundi that it, too, plans to leave the ICC. The decisions echo a wider debate in the African Union about the importance and effectiveness of the global court designed to tackle gross human rights violations, war crimes and genocide.
The ICC is governed by an international treaty called the Rome Statute that was adopted by 120 countries in 1998. Since then, the majority of indictments handed down have been related to wars or political violence in Africa. In fact, nine of its 10 current investigations involve countries in Africa. And all 23 cases tried before the ICC have involved African nations.
So why so much focus on Africa? The ICC’s extent of power is limited. It can only investigate crimes in countries that ratified the Rome Statute, or if the accused is a national of a country that acknowledges the ICC’s jurisdiction. To get involved anywhere else, the court needs a referral from the United Nations Security Council, where the United States, China and Russia have veto power. None of these countries have ratified the Rome Statute and therefore do not fall under the jurisdiction of the ICC, making it unlikely any cases involving them would be referred by the UN Security Council to the global court.
South Africa and Burundi’s decision to abandon the court is stirring division within the African Union. Some countries want to follow their path and leave, while others want to stay. For several countries, not complying with the ICC means international aid could be cut off. That would be highly problematic for countries like Malawi, where 40 percent of its economy is dependent on aid.
The AU is deliberating whether to endorse a mass exodus of its members from the ICC if certain conditions aren’t met, including immunity for sitting heads of state. The regional group has stated Western powers should allow the continent to implement “African solutions to African problems”. Whether that means more countries will leave the ICC is yet to be determined.
If they do, what does this mean for Africa, the future of the court, and the ability to hold people accountable if human rights abuses are committed? Join the conversation at 19:30 GMT.