South Africa’s High Court blocked the government’s attempt to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Wednesday, the latest blow to President Jacob Zuma.
A high court judge instructed the government to revoke its notice of withdrawal from the court based in The Hague, Netherlands.
South Africa’s main opposition party had gone to court, saying the government's notice was illegal because parliament was not consulted. “South Africa does not want to be lumped together with pariah states who have no respect for human rights,” the Democratic Alliance said.
“This is a victory for the rule of law and indeed for our country's human rights-based foreign policy which Zuma and his cronies have tried so hard to depart from,” DA spokesman James Selfe said. “Clearly Zuma and his ANC have absolutely no respect for the constitution.”
“What is so pressing for the national executive about the withdrawal ... which cannot wait for our legislative processes to take their course?” the court's ruling said. “Government respondents have not provided any explanation for this seemingly urgent need to withdraw from the Rome Statute” that created the tribunal.
Justice Minister Michael Masutha said the government would press ahead with withdrawing from the Hague-based tribunal, noting that the ruling was based largely on procedure – that the decision to pull out did not pass first through parliament.
Mr Masutha said the ruling amounted to a delay that would not stop the government's bid to leave an institution that some African governments feel unfairly targets Africans and which Pretoria said was at odds with its diplomatic immunity laws.
The ICC, which was launched in July 2002 and has 124 member states, is the first legal body with permanent international jurisdiction to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Pretoria notified the United Nations of its intent to withdraw in October, starting a year-long divorce period that would have made South Africa the first country to quit the court in October this year.
South Africa's withdrawal announcement followed a 2015 dispute over a visit by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the ICC for alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur. Al-Bashir was allowed to leave South Africa even though a local court ordered authorities to arrest him.
Under the Rome Statute, signatory countries have a legal obligation to arrest anyone sought by the ICC. South Africa said the treaty contradicts its diplomatic immunity law and prevents the country from acting as a regional peacemaker, a role that could require it to host adversaries on its own soil.
The government previously said a withdrawal bill would go to parliament, where the ruling African National Congress party has a majority and likely would approve it. However, the court's ruling could mean a significant delay in the process, and some legal experts speculate that the government might consider dropping its withdrawal plan ahead of the next presidential elections in 2019.
South Africa withdrawal notification alarmed international human rights groups and has raised fears of an African exodus from the court, which has more than 120 member states.
Some African countries have argued that the court has unfairly targeted their continent and have instead advocated strengthening their own institutions to deal with threats to human rights. All but one of the court's full-scale investigations are in Africa, though the majority were referred to the court by the African countries themselves and two by the UN Security Council.
Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had said he regretted South Africa's decision to withdraw from the ICC and expressed hope that the government would reconsider it. A country's withdrawal becomes effective a year after formally notifying the U.N. chief. In South Africa's case, that is expected in October. It was not immediately clear whether the court ruling has stopped the clock on that process.
Backers of the court were dismayed by South Africa's move to withdraw, especially after former President Nelson Mandela had been a strong advocate for the court's creation.
Three African states - South Africa, Gambia and Burundi – last year signalled their intention to quit the ICC. Gambia’s President Adama Barrow, elected in December, said earlier this month that the tiny West African nation would remain in the ICC.
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