South Africa's government will review its membership in the International Criminal Court in the wake of a dispute with the court over Pretoria's failure to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, a cabinet minister said on Thursday.
The diplomatic row which erupted on June 15, when Bashir flew out of South Africa as world powers and activists urged the government to arrest him, has exposed a growing rift between Africa and developed nations over the role of the ICC.
The global court has issued a warrant for Bashir on charges of masterminding genocide in Sudan's Darfur region, but South Africa did not accede to the request, citing legal complexities and the need to balance its obligations to the African Union, among others. Bashir has denied the genocide charges.
"Cabinet decided that it will review South Africa's participation in the Rome Statutes of the International (Criminal) Court," Jeff Radebe, minister in the presidency, told reporters during a post-cabinet meeting briefing. He added the government would only leave as a "last resort". "Such a decision will only be taken when South Africa has exhausted all the remedies available to it," he said.
Radebe said South Africa, which will enter formal discussions with the ICC over its concerns, would prepare a report in respect of its interaction with the court in terms of specific articles of the Rome Statute that established the ICC. One of them, Article 98 (2), places an obligation on the ICC to assist countries to execute warrants of arrest, said Radebe, adding that South Africa would propose amendments to clarify that obligation of the ICC toward states.
"It is abundantly clear that the ICC was aware South Africa may have difficulties in executing the warrant of arrest for President al-Bashir, because of its international commitments," he said.
ICC officials were not immediately available for comment.
Bashir, who was in South Africa for an African Union summit, was allowed to take off even though a Pretoria court had issued an order banning him from leaving until the end of a hearing on his case. As the row has simmered, top South African officials said the country should cut ties with the ICC over its alleged bias against Africa. All 36 people indicted by the ICC since 2005 have been African.
The ICC is "dangerous" and South Africa should withdraw from it, Gwede Mantashe, secretary general of the ruling African National Congress, said on Monday.
A South African judge asked prosecutors on Wednesday to consider charging government officials over the decision to allow Bashir to leave. South Africa's government was due to issue an affidavit in court on Thursday explaining why it allowed Bashir to leave but its contents were not expected to immediately be made public.