South Africa’s Shifting Stance on a Sensitive Question: Quit the I.C.C.?

While the statement made clear that South Africa would not imminently begin what would be a yearslong process of withdrawal, the president’s unscripted remarks touched off a media frenzy and highlighted the country’s different stance from much of the West on both the court and the war in Ukraine.

South Africa has refused pressure from its Western allies to condemn the Russian invasion. The two countries, along with China, held joint military exercises this year that overlapped with the first anniversary of the start of the war. Government and A.N.C. officials have repeatedly reiterated that South Africa and Russia are friends.

That South Africa was at least considering a withdrawal from the I.C.C. underscored that the A.N.C. was “clearly committed to a new world order” that was “not dominated by what is perceived to be Western interests,” said Gerhard Kemp, a law professor specializing in international criminal justice at the University of Derby in England.

The history of the court, which was created two decades ago as a standing body to investigate war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, does not support the frequent accusations that it is uniquely biased against African suspects. Of the nine cases involving African nations that the court has pursued, five resulted from requests by African governments who wanted to see their enemies punished, and two cases were referred to the court by the United Nations Security Council.

The leaders of Sudan and Kenya in particular began to campaign against the court after they personally became targets of investigations. African human rights lawyers and activists often retort that it is only the powerful who complain, while Africa’s many victims of violence are overlooked.

Two countries, Burundi and the Philippines, have left the court, in both cases following announcements that prosecutors planned to investigate their leaders for alleged atrocities. Gambia also quit briefly, but it rejoined the court after the country’s authoritarian ruler lost his bid for re-election.

This is not the first time that South Africa has threatened to pull out of the I.C.C.

Following a dispute over whether to arrest the former president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, when he came to South Africa while under an I.C.C. arrest warrant in 2015, lawmakers brought up a bill in Parliament to withdraw from the court. The bill was eventually revoked when a court in South Africa ruled it unconstitutional.

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