DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Gambia has become the third African nation to say it will leave the International Criminal Court, deepening fears of a mass pullout from the body that pursues some of the world's worst atrocities.
In announcing the decision Tuesday night on national television, Gambia accused the court of unfairly targeting Africa and calling it the "International Caucasian Court for the persecution and humiliation of people of color, especially Africans."
The move comes after South Africa, once a strong ICC supporter under former President Nelson Mandela, notified the United Nations secretary-general last week that it would leave the court. Burundi's president last week signed legislation to leave the court as well.
Gambia's move drew swift condemnation from human rights groups. The statement about the court unfairly pursuing Africans "could not be further from the truth," said Netsanet Belay, Amnesty International's research and advocacy director for Africa.
"For many Africans the ICC presents the only avenue for justice for the crimes they have suffered," Belay said. "Gambia's announcement is particularly shocking given that the ICC's prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, is herself Gambian and a champion of international justice and the fight against global impunity."
Bensouda declined to comment specifically on Gambia's withdrawal but said the ICC would continue doing its job of bringing to justice those responsible for atrocities.
"I don't think we should feel we are defeated and that the court will close tomorrow," she said Wednesday. "No, the court will have its challenges. We will counter those challenges. We will confront them and move forward."
Gambia's information minister, Sheriff Baba Bojang, announced late Tuesday that the court is involved in "the persecution of Africans, and especially their leaders."
Only Africans have been charged in the six ICC cases that are ongoing or about to begin, though preliminary ICC investigations have been opened elsewhere in the world. Experts point out that most of the ICC cases in Africa were referred to the court by African countries themselves or by the U.N. Security Council.
Under the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court, signatory countries have a legal obligation to arrest anyone sought by the tribunal. However, some African states have allowed people wanted by the ICC, notably Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, to visit, and some say leaders ought to be immune from prosecution.
Gambia has begun the process of withdrawing from the ICC, which involves notifying the U.N. secretary-general and takes effect a year after the notification is received, its information minister said. So far, the U.N. has said it has received notification only from South Africa.
Rights groups often accuse Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, one of Africa's longest serving leaders, of abuses including a clampdown on political opponents. The next presidential election is scheduled for December.
Kebba Samuel Nyanchor Sanneh, European coordinator of the pro-democracy group Gambia Consultative Council, called Tuesday's announcement by the tiny West African country "merely an attempt to divert world attention from the flawed electoral process."
"This is a desperate move by the Jammeh regime to earn some respect from Gambians and other African governments who believe that the ICC is an organization staging a 'selective witch hunt' against non-whites," Sanneh said. "I also believe that Jammeh, by opting out of the ICC, will protect himself and his surrogates from possible indictment by the Hague-based court."
Officials with other top African critics of the court, including Uganda and Kenya, have said in recent days they have not yet decided whether to leave the ICC as well. Uganda said it will be a "hot topic" at an African Union meeting in January.
Associated Press writer Mike Corder at The Hague, Netherlands, contributed to this report.