South Africa announced Friday that it would withdraw from the International Criminal Court, dealing a major blow to a troubled institution set up to try the world's worst crimes.
The decision followed a dispute last year when Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir visited the country for an African Union summit despite facing an ICC arrest warrant over alleged war crimes. South Africa refused to arrest him, saying he had immunity as a head of state.
Justice Minister Michael Masutha told reporters in Pretoria that the court was "inhibiting South Africa's ability to honour its obligations relating to the granting of diplomatic immunity".
"There is a view in Africa that the ICC in choosing who to prosecute has seemingly preferred to target leaders in Africa," Masutha added to AFP.
The ICC, set up in 2002, is often accused of bias against Africa and has also struggled with a lack of cooperation, including from the United States which has signed the court's treaty but never ratified it.
South Africa would be the first country to leave the court, though others could soon follow. The withdrawal "shows startling disregard for justice from a country long seen as a global leader," Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
Amnesty International said the country was "betraying millions of victims of the gravest human rights violations and undermining the international justice system."
- Post-colonial bias? -
South Africa's failure as an ICC signatory to arrest Bashir led to a wave of condemnation, which was met with an early threat from the government to withdraw from The Hague-based court.
Bashir has evaded arrest since his ICC indictment in 2009 for alleged war crimes in Sudan's Darfur conflict in which 300,000 people were killed and two million forced to flee their homes.
Earlier this month Burundi said it would withdraw, and Namibia and Kenya have also raised the possibility.
"It could spark a domino effect on other African states who may also want to pull out," Anton du Plessis, of the Institute for Security Studies, told AFP.
"South Africa played an important role in developing the ICC and now to see it playing such a destructive role is saddening."
South Africa, which delivered a letter to the United Nations on Wednesday to activate its formal withdrawal, is likely to complete the process in one year.
The Democratic Alliance, the country's main opposition party, immediately launched a legal appeal, describing the withdrawal as "irrational and procedurally flawed".
"The decision... shows the depth of impunity and disregard for the rule of law within the ANC (ruling party)," it said.
- 'Disgraceful conduct' -
In March, South Africa's Supreme Court of Appeal accused President Jacob Zuma's government of "disgraceful conduct" over Bashir's visit and ruled that the failure to arrest Bashir was unlawful. The government was facing a possible defeat in the Constitutional Court next month over the issue, but said that Friday's decision meant its legal battle would be dropped.
During the summit, an emergency court order was obtained for Bashir's arrest, but government lawyers admitted he had quickly flown out of the country just before the order was issued. "We were called as country to arrest and prosecute a sitting head of state and the natural consequence would have been forced regime change in that country by South Africa," Justice Minister Masutha told AFP.
Of the ten ICC probes since 2002, nine have been into African countries and one into Georgia. In a major setback, its highest profile case -- over Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta's involvement in election violence -- collapsed two years ago.This month, it found former Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba and four aides guilty of bribing witnesses. Its chief prosecutor also recently sent a team to the Democratic Republic of Congo to urge restraint after weeks of deadly unrest.