NEW YORK, October 21, 2016 – The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) decries the announcement that South Africa will seek to withdraw from the Rome Statute, the treaty that created the International Criminal Court (ICC) and an international framework for fighting impunity for egregious crimes. Reportedly, a document stating this position, signed by Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, South Africa's minister of international relations and cooperation, dated October 19, 2016, was submitted to the United Nations.
The ICC is the world’s first permanent international criminal court. Governed by the Rome Statute, it provides for accountability for the most serious crimes and aims to help prevent them from happening again.
One year ago, South Africa ignored an ICC arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir while he was visiting the country, which was widely seen as avoiding its international legal obligations and undermining the court and its aims. Bashir is wanted by the ICC for alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Darfur.
“This marks a very sad day for the fight against impunity, particularly in view of the important role that South Africa played in the creation of the ICC,” said David Tolbert, President of ICTJ. “It is regrettable that South Africa appears to be turning its back on the victims of the worst crimes known to humanity. Given its oppressive past, South Africa should be leading the struggle for global human rights, not undermining it.”
In its attempt to shield leaders of other nations from accountability for the worst international crimes, the South African government has claimed that its own implementing legislation for the Rome Statute (Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court Act of 2002) would require it to violate provisions of another national law, the Diplomatic Immunities and Privileges Act of 2001. This proposition does not stand up to scrutiny, as the South African government not only ratified the Rome Statute but also adopted implementing legislation that is consistent with it.
Forty-five years of apartheid rule cast a long shadow over South Africa, with mass violations such as systemic racial discrimination, massacres, torture, and lengthy prison terms for activists, including Nelson Mandela. After apartheid officially ended, the South African Parliament created the well-known Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate and report on the gross violations of human rights committed during the apartheid period.
However, since the TRC concluded its work, the South African government has essentially ignored victims’ rights and failed to pursue individual criminal responsibility for abuses committed during apartheid, even when the accused did not receive amnesty from the TRC, either because they were denied amnesty or because they chose not to participate in the process.
“Lamentably, the South African government’s position is entirely consistent with its domestic policy of impunity for Apartheid-era atrocities by suppressing investigations and prosecutions,” said Tolbert. “This is a dark day not only for the fight against impunity but also for South Africa itself, which should be at the forefront of justice, not avoiding its moral responsibility to further accountability for the serious crimes the Rome Statute proscribes.”
Meredith Barges, Senior Associate, Communications
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PHOTO: South Africa’s Minister of Justice Michael Masutha addresses press regarding South Africa's decision to withdraw from the ICC (Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images).