South Africa threatened Tuesday to withdraw from the International Criminal Court after an outcry over the government’s refusal to detain Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on genocide charges. Bashir flew out of Pretoria last week after attending a meeting of the African Union despite a court order that barred his departure, sparking international criticism of President Jacob Zuma’s government.
In a heated parliamentary debate, the lead speaker for Zuma’s ruling African National Congress said South Africa would press for reforms of the ICC, accusing it of losing credibility because countries such as the United States had failed to place themselves under the control of the Hague-based organisation.
“The ANC reserves the right to raise these reform packages and if rejected we will have no alternative but to review our membership of the ICC,” said Obed Bapela, deputy minister of traditional affairs. The opposition Democratic Alliance had accused the government of a serious breach of the constitution by allowing Bashir to leave the country.
“The Zuma government has committed a crime of allowing a wanted man to evade the law,” said Stevens Mokgalapa, the DA’s shadow minister of international relations. The South African court which called for Bashir to be prevented from leaving the country has given the government until Thursday to explain why it defied the court order.
In parliament, the ANC made its case clear, claiming that because Bashir was attending a meeting of the AU he was entitled to immunity, in the same way heads of state received immunity from arrest in the United States when they attended the United Nations general assembly.
“We are not going to use the AU as a platform to arrest leaders — that will never happen,” Bapela said, adding that international criticism of South Africa’s action showed “contempt” for the continent. This line was supported by radical opposition lawmakers in the Economic Freedom Fighters, who usually totally oppose government positions.
They said that former US president George Bush and former British prime minister Tony Blair should be arrested for war crimes over Iraq, and that leaders of Israel — which has also not joined the ICC — should be prosecuted for offences against the Palestinians.
Bashir has evaded justice since his indictment in 2009 for alleged serious abuses in the western Sudanese region of Darfur. The conflict began in 2003 when black insurgents rose up against his Arab-dominated government, protesting they were marginalised.