South Africa's ruling party has resolved to withdraw from the International Criminal Court, inflicting further damage on the beleaguered court after a wave of verbal attacks from other African governments.
The decision, announced on Sunday at a midterm conference of the ruling African National Congress, will fuel the growing momentum of an African push to abandon The Hague and set up a regional court that would give immunity to African leaders.
South Africa and other African governments have accused the ICC of showing anti-African and pro-Western bias. They complain that the court has only prosecuted Africans so far, while the United States and European nations seem exempt from prosecution.
Their criticism, however, became vociferous only when African leaders themselves began to face trial at the ICC on charges of crimes against humanity. The presidents of Kenya and Sudan have both faced charges in The Hague, provoking an African outcry. The African Union has argued that presidents and senior government officials should be immune from prosecution – a rule that it would introduce in its own planned court.
The United States, Russia and China are not members of the international court, but they belong to the United Nations Security Council, which can tell the ICC to investigate cases. African leaders have called this unfair and hypocritical.
"There are powerful nations who are also refusing to be part of the ICC [and] they've got these unfettered powers to then refer matters to the ICC," said Obed Bapela, a South African cabinet minister, as he announced that the ANC's national general council had approved the withdrawal plan.
"The ICC has lost its direction, unfortunately, and is no longer pursuing that principle of an instrument that is fair for everybody," added Mr. Bapela, who is chairman of the party's international-relations subcommittee.
He said the plan to withdraw from the court will now be "fast-tracked" for approval by the South African Parliament, where the ANC controls more than 60 per cent of seats.
The plan will also be submitted to the ICC's assembly of states next month and to the African Union's next summit in January, party leaders said.
The ANC's decision is a heavy blow to the international court because South Africa was an early and strong champion. It was the first African country to join the ICC and it even adopted the court's treaty as part of its domestic laws. Even when Kenya and other African countries were harshly criticizing the court and demanding an African withdrawal, South Africa still hesitated.
But the tide turned in June, when South Africa invited Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to attend an AU summit in Johannesburg, despite his ICC arrest warrant on charges of genocide and war crimes in connection with thousands of deaths in Darfur.
Under the court's international treaty, South Africa was obliged to arrest Mr. al-Bashir, and the ICC ordered it to do so. A South African court issued a similar order. Yet instead South Africa allowed him to enter and leave freely.
Since then, the showdown has grown worse. Last month, the ICC ordered South Africa to explain why it had defied the court's orders. But at the expiry of the court's 30-day deadline for providing this explanation, South Africa demanded more time – and accused the ICC of violating its own treaty by issuing orders to South Africa without allowing time for a legal challenge.
Mr. al-Bashir, meanwhile, seems to be gaining more African support all the time. He has been invited to attend a major Africa-India summit in New Delhi later this month and an Africa-China summit in Johannesburg in December.