Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza took another step towards becoming a global outlier on Tuesday.
The controversial leader signed a decree to quit the International Criminal Court (ICC), following a parliamentary vote to that effect earlier in October. The decree retracted Burundi’s participation in the Rome Statute, on which the court’s authority is founded. The Burundian presidency announced on Tuesday that it would come into immediate effect, although the Rome Statute states that any decision to withdraw becomes active a year after giving notice to the United Nations secretary general.
The move makes Burundi the first country ever to pull out of the court, which is based in The Hague and was established in 1998 to deal with high-level crimes, including genocide and crimes against humanity.
ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda opened a preliminary investigation into the situation in Burundi in April. Bensouda said she was investigating events since April 2015, when Nkurunziza announced his intention to run for a third term as president. The decision sparked widespread violence, a failed coup, and a brutal crackdown on opposition. The chief prosecutor said when opening the investigation that more than 430 people had been reportedly killed. More than 300,000 Burundians have also fled the country since the violence began, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency.
The decision irked Nkurunziza, and the Burundian government has been further infuriated by a U.N. report in September that claimed to have verified 564 executions in Burundi since April 2015, mostly carried out by security forces on people perceived to be opposition supporters. The Burundian government rejected the report and has since banned three U.N. investigators from the country.
But while Burundi may be the first country to leave the ICC, it may not be the last. Other African leaders have also railed against a perceived bias in the court. All four of the suspects convicted for crimes against humanity and/or war crimes by the ICC are African—most recently Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi , a Malian jihadi sentenced to nine years imprisonment in September for destroying historic shrines during the northern Mali uprising in 2012. Another, Congolese politician Jean-Pierre Bemba—sentenced to 18 years in prison in June for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Central African Republic—is appealing his sentence. All three of the court’s ongoing trials involve Africans, and nine of the 10 situations currently being investigated by the court prior to a possible trial involve African states.
So after Burundi, who could be next to abandon the ICC?
The highest profile suspect on the ICC’s agenda is Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president. The court first issued an arrest warrant against Bashir in March 2009, the first time it had indicted a sitting head of state. Along with several other suspects, the ICC charged Bashir with being indirectly responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur. The conflict in Darfur, which began with a rebellion of ethnic Africans against the Arab-led government in 2003, is estimated to have killed hundreds of thousands, with Amnesty International alleging recently that government forces had used chemical weapons against civilians, something the Sudanese mission to the U.N. denied.
Bashir has dismissed the charges against him and described the ICC as a “politicized tribunal” in April. Other African countries have appeared to disregard the ICC’s arrest warrant and welcome Bashir as a visitor. Most notably, Bashir went to South Africa in June 2015 for an AU conference and was allowed to leave freely, despite a South African court ruling that he should be detained.
Besides Bashir, the court’s other high-profile suspects have included the current president and deputy president of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto. The court issued summonses for six prominent Kenyans in 2010, including Kenyatta and Ruto—then the deputy prime minister and minister of higher education respectively—on grounds of crimes against humanity allegedly committed during violence that followed Kenya’s elections in December 2007. More than 1,200 Kenyans were killed during two months of inter-ethnic violence following the vote, which was criticized as not free and fair by the international community.
The ICC prosecutors withdrew the charges against Kenyatta in December 2014, saying that the Kenyan government had refused to hand over vital evidence. The court also threw out the case against Ruto in April, but the decisions have not ended Kenyan animosity to the court. Kenya made a proposal at an AU summit in January for the continental body to “develop a roadmap for the withdrawal of African nations,” which received widespread support among other states party to the Rome Statute.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, one of the continent’s elder statesman, has been a vocal advocate for abandoning the Netherlands court. Following the withdrawal of the case against Kenyatta, the 72-year-old president—who has held power in Uganda since 1980—said that the ICC was a “tool to target” Africa by Western leaders. Museveni pledged to bring a proposal to leave the institution. “Then they can be left alone with their court,” he said in December 2014. The mass withdrawal of African countries would leave the ICC diminished—34 of the countries party to the Rome Statute are African, the largest continental bloc out of a total of 124 states.
While he has not been successful in his mission so far, Museveni prompted outrage among Western diplomats by branding the court “useless” in May, during his inauguration for a fifth consecutive term as president. The statement prompted officials from the European Union, United States and Canada to walk out of the ceremony.