Decision comes as the African Union debates a mass withdrawal from the court

South Africa’s attempt to withdraw from the International Criminal Court has been ruled “unconstitutional and invalid” by a Pretoria court. The decision is a victory for activists hoping to stem an exodus of African nations from the ICC.

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In October, South Africa became the second African nation to announce it was leaving the ICC, which pursues war criminals and dictators. Pretoria claimed that its support for the court’s prosecutions conflicted with its ability to host African leaders to broker peace deals on the continent.

Judge Phineas Mojapelo, delivering the ruling at Pretoria’s high court on Tuesday, said President Jacob Zuma’s government had acted in “irrational haste” and violated the country’s constitution by failing to put withdrawal to a vote in parliament.

The judge said Mr Zuma was “ordered forthwith to revoke the notice of withdrawal”. The government is likely to appeal the case, which was brought by the opposition Democratic Alliance.

Michael Masutha, the justice minister, said the government would press ahead with withdrawing from The Hague-based tribunal. “The intention to withdraw still stands, as this is a policy decision of the executive,” Mr Masutha told Reuters.

Any vote in parliament to withdraw would almost certainly pass, given the majority of Mr Zuma’s ruling African National Congress.

The decision comes at a time of intense debate within the African Union over a mass withdrawal from the court over claims that prosecutions have been biased against the continent’s rulers.

With support from countries such as Kenya and Sudan, an AU meeting last month approved a resolution in favour of withdrawing — but it was made non-binding, after resistance led by Nigeria and Senegal.

Adama Barrow, Gambia’s new president, recently reversed his predecessor Yahya Jammeh’s commitment to take the country out of the ICC.

The ruling marks another domestic defeat for Mr Zuma at the hands of the South African judiciary, which has checked the president over a run of scandals over the past two years.

Last year the country’s highest court found that Mr Zuma violated the constitution over not paying back taxpayer money used to fund improvements on a personal home. The funds were eventually repaid.

The attempt to withdraw from the ICC attracted particular anger from activists and civil society given South Africa’s post-apartheid international reputation as a beacon of democracy on its continent. It was the first African country to approve the treaty that established the ICC in 2002.

Mr Zuma’s government was criticised two years ago for failing to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, wanted by the ICC on genocide charges, during a visit to the country.

African countries make up about a third of the 124 governments that are parties to the ICC. All four ICC convictions since its founding have been brought against Africans, most recently an Islamist militant who bulldozed centuries-old shrines in Timbuktu in Mali. ( FT) 

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