After Burundian lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC) on October 12, South Africa and Gambia quickly followed suit and declared their own decisions to leave the court. This isn’t the first time that member nations have threatened to withdraw from the court, but none has ever followed through. This time, however, the ICC’s future seems less certain. Other ICC members, such as Kenya and Uganda, may seek to “capitalize on the momentum,” as Indiana University Professor David Bosco told the New York Times, prompting concerns that the ICC will soon face an African exodus.
To be sure, Burundi’s and Gambia’s decisions to withdraw from the court are hardly surprising. In April, the ICC opened a preliminary investigation of the situation in Burundi, which has been embroiled in conflict and violence since President Pierre Nkurunziza launched a bid for a third term in office. And Gambian President Yahya Jammeh has been known to crush political dissent, an issue that resurfaced earlier this year when his government was criticized for cracking down against political opponents. Both governments naturally want to avoid direct scrutiny.
South Africa’s intent to leave, however, is much more significant. Unlike Burundi, South Africa has never been investigated by the ICC. And whereas Gambia has historically accused the ICC of only prosecuting Africans while ignoring the crimes of Western nations, Pretoria has been a major champion of the ICC since the days of the late Nelson Mandela. In 2013, it also resisted initial calls for an African Union (AU) walkout. As the continent’s wealthiest nation, as well as a symbol of justice and reconciliation, South Africa has often played a leadership role in regional political affairs. Its decision to withdraw, therefore, deals a significant blow to the legitimacy of the court.
And that is a shame. The ICC does have flaws—such as limited political will and uneven membership—but it remains crucial to combatting impunity, especially among high-level officials that
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