South African president Jacob Zuma with his Burundi counterpart Pierre Nkurunziza in February 2016 (Photo: Flickr/GCIS)

Quitting the ICC: international scapegoat for domestic trouble?

24 October 2016 by Benjamin Duerr

Two countries announced their withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC) last week. The decisions of the governments of Burundi and South Africa are motivated by domestic politics and fit a broader development seen in other countries: scapegoating international affairs for local failures.

Only a day after the Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza signed a law to lead its country out of the ICC [IJT-196], the South African government sent a letter to the UN Secretary-General notifying him of the country's withdrawal from the Rome Statute, the founding treaty of the court. 

South Africa became the first country to officially leave the ICC. There is still uncertainty whether the withdrawal will stand since the government moved ahead without the approval of the parliament. Opposition groups have already announced they will approach South African courts to have the legality of the withdrawal procedure checked.

Still, last week's development raised fears more countries could follow Burundi and South Africa. In the past various member states of the African Union (AU) have threatened to set in motion a mass withdrawal. They criticized the ICC for its alleged bias against Africans and called the court a “neo-colonial” institution and a tool to weaken and oppress Africa. Both Burundi and South Africa justified their withdrawal with the court's alleged bias. In addition, the South African government explained the implementation of the Rome Statute would be inconsistent with customary international law and other legislation.

However, the underlying reason for both Burundi and South Africa to quit the ICC seems to be merely domestic. Besides the soreness caused by the Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who was not arrested by South African authorities despite an ICC arrest warrant, the country's ruling elite faces serious challenges which might have contributed to the decision to withdraw from the ICC.

The government of president Jacob Zuma and his ruling party African National Congress (ANC) have come under pressure from various sides. The party has disappointed many at home and faces a nation-wide decline. In crucial local elections in August, it lost major cities to the opposition. Analysts say the ANC is increasingly becoming a party for the less educated and the rural parts of the country where the state has failed to provide basic infrastructure from water to school books.

Scapegoating international affairs for domestic failures is a popular and successful strategy to get and maintain the support of these parts of society. The outspoken ANC chief  whip Jackson Mthembu, said last week the ICC had become a tool for other states to dictate and pursue an imperialist agenda. A withdrawal, he implied, would protect the country from interference. Burundian officials used similar language a few days earlier. Domestic and African institutions should be strengthened instead, Mthembu said.

In this regard the withdrawal from the ICC can be seen as similar to Great Britain's exit from the European Union, the recent resistance of Wallonia to support the European-Canadian trade agreement CETA and the rise of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate in the US. All are expressions of a favoritism of a national solution over international cooperation and the rejection by parts of the society of elitist and distanced institutions. The ICC as a highly elitist project is an easy and likely target.