THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Supporters of the International Criminal Court appealed for unity Wednesday in the aftermath of three African nations announcing plans to withdraw and Russia symbolically turning its back on the court.
The departures of the African states — South Africa, Burundi and Gambia — buzzed through the corridors on the first day of the annual meeting of the court's member states, the Assembly of States Parties, in The Hague. Before their announcements, no country had ever left the court, which was set up in 2002 as the first criminal tribunal with a global reach.
Russia snubbed the court Wednesday when President Vladimir Putin signed a decree to withdraw from the court. However Moscow never ratified the Rome Statute that created the court, despite signing the treaty in 2000, meaning Russia wasn't a member.
The court's chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, sought to downplay the impact of the departures, saying, "this is not a crisis for the Rome Statute system, but a set-back in our joint efforts towards achieving a more peaceful and just world."
Bensouda, who comes from Gambia, said that "to address these crimes and deliver justice to victims across the world, it is essential that states' participation in the Rome Statute is not only maintained and reinforced, but enlarged."
Canadian Foreign Minister Stephane Dion used his speech to the 124-nation assembly to deliver an impassioned plea for support for the court, saying it is necessary to ensure accountability for those who commit the most serious crimes.
"We created the court together. We must keep it together," he said.
But South African Justice Minister Michael Mathura continued his country's criticism of the court, saying it is ignoring atrocities in other parts of the world. All but one of the court's full-scale investigations are in Africa, though the majority were referred to the court by the African countries themselves and two by the U.N. Security Council.
"They choose to turn a blind eye and rather focus on one geopolitical space to the exclusion of all others," Mathura told reporters in The Hague. "That, they must explain. The principle of universality of the application of rule of law has to be at the heart of the institution. If they are not willing to uphold that principle, their credibility will continue to be eroded."
The court has been criticized for not stepping in to prosecute atrocities in Syria, but it doesn't have automatic jurisdiction there as the country is not a member of the ICC. A resolution by the U.N. Security Council to refer the Syrian war to the ICC was vetoed in May 2014 by Russia and China.
The African anger also stems from the fact that the ICC went after two sitting heads of state in the continent, Kenya's Uhuru Kenyatta and Omar al-Bashir of Sudan. The court ultimately withdrew all charges against Kenyatta while al-Bashir remains a fugitive.
Human Rights Watch urged member states not to water down the court's core principles, such as its refusal to recognize head of state immunity, in a bid to prevent more departures.
"The ICC withdrawals risk becoming a bargaining chip by countries looking to make the world safer for abusive dictators," said Elizabeth Evenson, HRW's associate international justice director. She urged ICC members to "make clear the court's mandate is not up for sale."
Putin's decree, published on the Kremlin's website, came a day after the U.N. General Assembly's human rights committee condemned Russia's "temporary occupation of Crimea" and blamed Russia for rights abuses such as discrimination against some Crimean residents.
Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014 from Ukraine following a hastily called referendum, a move that led to crippling Western sanctions. A separatist insurgency erupted in eastern Ukraine the following month, backed by Russia.
The ICC on Monday issued a preliminary report where it described what happened in Crimea as "an international armed conflict between Ukraine and the Russian Federation."
Amnesty International slammed Russia's step back from the court.
"Russia never demonstrated any genuine intention to ratify the Rome Statute, and this announcement appears as nothing but contempt for the aims of the ICC - putting an end to impunity for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity - and is an affront to all victims of these appalling crimes," Sergei Nikitin, Director of Amnesty International Russia, said in a statement.
Associated Press writer Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.