(image via BBC)

South Africa is now the second African nation to announce their decision to leave the International Criminal Court, three days after the Burundi president signed a decree to withdraw. In Burundi, the International Criminal Court (ICC) had planned to investigate political violence that followed the president’s decision to pursue a third term last year. Thus, Burundi’s decision to leave can easily be categorized as a government trying to avoid scrutiny for misdeeds. However, South Africa’s exodus from the ICC is far more serious, as many fear that other African Union countries like Kenya and Uganda might now capitalize on the anti-ICC sentiment and follow suit in an exodus. South Africa refused to arrest Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who was visiting South Africa last year and faces charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan.

African Union leaders have been critical of the court, saying it has disproportionately focused its prosecutions for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide on Africa. Indeed, all of the people the ICC has convicted thus far have been Africans. But the ICC was created in part as a response to the Rwandan genocide in 1994 with overwhelming support of African governments. Six of the nine African cases handled by the ICC were brought by African governments themselves, and the remaining three were either referred by the United Nationals Security Council or initiated by the court’s prosecutors. Even so, some African leaders simply regard the court as an instrument of modern colonialism. Others attribute the focus on Africa as a result of difficulties encountered in conducting inquiries in places like Afghanistan, Syria, and Palestine.

Former United States ambassador at large for global justice called Burundi and South Africa’s decision “a betrayal of the victims of atrocious crimes.” He continued, “What we have here is an attempt to protect the leaders accused of horrible crimes in Burundi, Darfur, and Kenya among others and a continuation of impunity, but nothing for the people who are suffering from the crimes.” South Africa’s exodus from the court will take about a year, thus it remains to be seen what impact this will have of the perception of the ICC in Africa. Is it indeed an instrument for modern colonialism? Or does the ICC fulfill an important purpose in Africa, one that political leaders are simply eager to ignore in order to preserve their power?