The relations between the International Criminal Court (ICC) and African States have come to a head once again this week with situation now at its lowest point. The government of South Africa has announced (see here) that it is withdrawing from the Statute of the ICC and that it has submitted its instrument of withdrawal to the UN Secretary General in accordance with Article 127(1) of the ICC Statute. Under that provision, the withdrawal shall take effect one year after the date of receipt of the notification of withdrawal (unless the state specifies a later date in the notification). South Africa, which had previously been a strong supporter of the Court, thus becomes the first state to withdraw from the ICC. To add to the sense of crisis, the South African withdrawal follows on from the decision over the past couple of weeks of the President and Parliament of Burundi to also withdraw from the ICC Statute. Although the Burundi Parliament has voted to do this and the President has signed a decree to this effect(see here and here), Burundi does not appear to have, as yet, notified the UN Secretary-General of its intention to withdraw to the ICC. There are fears that other African states will follow suit. [Lost in all of this was the news that, by contrast, another African country, Gabon, referred the situation in that country to the ICC less than4 weeks ago (see here for statement of ICC Prosecutor).]
South Africa’s Reasons for Withdrawal
The South African notification of withdrawal has not yet been released publicly but we have a detailed statement from the Minister of Justice regarding the reasons behind the withdrawal. One of the major grounds on which the South African government justifies its withdrawal is that:
“the Rome Statute [and the domestic Act implementing it] compel South Africa to arrest persons who may enjoy diplomatic immunity under customary international law but who are wanted by the court.”
The government claim is thus that complying with the ICC Statute will cause South Africa to breach its obligations to other states. The Minister suggests that resolving this conflict of obligations is important, because it undermines the ability of South Africa to work towards peaceful resolution of disputes and to promote the important objective of bringing conflicts to an end. The Minister went on to say that: “South Africa has had to do so [arrest people wanted by the ICC], even under circumstances where we are actively involved in promoting peace, stability and dialogue in those countries”. He stated further that:
“We wish to give effect to the rule of customary international law, which recognises the diplomatic immunity of heads of state and others in order to effectively promote dialogue and the peaceful resolution of conflicts wherever they may occur, particularly on the African continent”.
Does the ICC Statute Require States to Violate the Customary International Law of Immunity?
I do not intend to address the broader peace vs justice debate in this post (Is South Africa right to seek to pursue peace over immediate claims to justice in particular situations?) Reasonable minds can disagree on this. However, I wish to question the claim by South Africa that the Rome Statute requires it to violate customary international law of immunity. Read the rest of this entry…