A version of the following article was originally published in the Mail & Guardian and was co-authored with Richard Goldstone, former Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and a member of the
South Africa’s Justice Minister has presented the to the Justice Portfolio Committee of the South African parliament. This process could be a precursor to the country repealing the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court Act (2002) and eventually withdrawing from the International Criminal Court (ICC). This is very troubling news — for South Africa and the project of global justice itself. It is also unnecessary. South Africa can and should be a champion of the ICC and seek to improve the institution it has already invested so much into. What happens next will determine whether South Africa is a leader or a laggard on international justice. It still has an opportunity to be the latter — and avoid the former.
This is not the first time that South Africa has moved towards withdrawal from the ICC. In October 2016, the government of Jacob Zuma announced that it would withdraw from the ICC due to a host of reasons, including its belief that, in order to be an active and effective mediator in peace processes, it could not remain a member of the Rome Statute of the ICC.
Zuma’s efforts to withdraw South Africa from the ICC were by deft domestic legal action. According to the High Court, which found Zuma’s efforts to withdraw South Africa from the ICC to be unconstitutional and that parliamentary approval of any effort to repeal the ICC Act of 2002 and withdraw the country from the Court was necessary.
After Zuma’s resignation, many observers hoped that his successor, President Cyril Ramaphosa, would not proceed towards withdrawing South Africa from the ICC. This hope was not met by any confirmation that the ANC’s policy of seeking withdrawal from the ICC had changed. For his part, President Ramaphosa has been silent on the matter. Still, as someone widely regarded as a proponent of international law and global justice, many believed that the President would see the value and interest of remaining a state party of the Court. Ramaphosa was on the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty whose conceptualization of posited the International Criminal Court as a cornerstone of the anti-impunity firmament. South Africa itself has a proud and impressive history of supporting efforts to achieve justice and accountability for mass atrocities, including at the ICC. In his Africa Day address last week, the President emphasised the importance of South Africa supporting international law and the United Nations. Everything should be done to avoid undermining that hard-earned reputation and record.
The government’s decision to continue pushing forward the International Crimes Bill means that the merits of South Africa’s withdrawal from the ICC will be debated in Parliament in the coming weeks and months. Hope in South Africa’s commitment to the ICC now resides amongst the country’s Parliamentarians. But President Ramaphosa and the ANC leadership could still play a role in making the best out of a bad situation. Here’s how. Continue reading