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The lower house of Burundi’s Parliament voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to withdraw the country from the International Criminal Court, a move that international justice advocates fear could open the floodgates for other countries to divorce themselves from what was already seen as a deeply troubled institution.
No country that has ratified the court’s establishing treaty has ever withdrawn, though several have threatened to do so, and some countries that signed the treaty have never ratified it, including the United States.
Africa has been unhappy with the International Criminal Court, based in The Hague, a seaside city in the Netherlands. The court is supposed to try cases of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity from around the world, but so far it has focused almost entirely on Africa’s battlefields, prosecuting rebels, warlords and government leaders from the graveyards of Darfur, in Sudan, to the jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In April, the court’s chief prosecutor announced a preliminary investigation into the situation in Burundi, where hundreds of people have died in violent street protests and political killings. The government has been blamed for many of the deaths, as well as rapes and torture.
African leaders have repeatedly called the court a biased postcolonial tool for Europe to beat up on Africa while ignoring crimes committed elsewhere. Earlier this year, members of the African Union talked about withdrawing en masse, and now Burundi has taken the first step, by a vote of 94 to 2 with 14 abstentions in its lower house.
“The importance of justice is to reconcile people, the importance of justice is to solidify peace,” Edouard Nduwimana, a Burundian legislator who voted to withdraw, said Wednesday. “If you look at how the I.C.C. is working now, and say that we want to let them implement what they want, do you think Burundi would be very peaceful?”
Burundi has been racked by bloodshed, torture, death squads and chaos for the past year and a half, after its president, Pierre Nkurunziza, sought and won a third term in office despite many Burundians’ saying that a third term was illegal.
Burundi is now a very isolated place. On Monday, after the release of a United Nations report citing widespread human rights violations by security forces, the government barred three United Nations human rights investigators from entering the country. Some analysts said the government now had little to lose by snubbing the court.
Its decision “says less about the I.C.C. and more about Burundi and its political posturing and disregard for justice,” said Param-Preet Singh, an associate director at Human Rights Watch.
Other countries, including Kenya, South Africa and Namibia, have flirted with the idea of withdrawing from the court. The Kenyan Parliament passed a motion to leave in 2013, and the governing party in South Africa said in 2015 that it planned to leave, but in both cases no concrete step has been taken.
Pulling out of the court carries risks: Western nations that have supported the court might reduce aid or impose other penalties. With the United States and the European Union already imposing sanctions on some security officials, though, Burundi was already in the international penalty box, which is why analysts said it was the first to start to withdraw, though it may not be the last.
The court has been plagued by problems almost from its beginning in 2002. Witness tampering, a lack of cooperation from African governments and a lack of participation by many of the world’s most powerful nations, including the United States, have combined to produce a lackluster picture of international justice.
Many of the court’s most prominent cases, including those against President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya (charged with crimes against humanity) or President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan (charged with genocide), have crumbled or gone nowhere.
Some African leaders were initially worried about the court and the prospect of spending their lives in a cold jail cell in Europe if they were caught orchestrating bloodshed. But over the years, they have successfully hammered the court’s reputation, and in many quarters across Africa today it is considered a joke.
At his fifth inauguration in May, President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled Uganda for 30 years, called the court “a bunch of useless people,” prompting Western diplomats to walk out in the middle of the ceremony.
Before that, Mr. Kenyatta said, “We refuse to be carried along in a vehicle that has strayed off course to the detriment of our sovereignty, security and dignity as Africans.”
Mr. Kenyatta sponsored a proposal in January for the African Union to consider withdrawing from the court as a bloc. The proposal was immediately popular, but no action has been taken.
Leaving is not as simple as a single show of hands in Parliament. The measure that Burundian lawmakers passed on Wednesday will not become law until it is also passed by the Senate and signed by the president. Beyond that, under the treaty that created the court, a country wishing to withdraw from its jurisdiction must formally write to the United Nations secretary general stating its intention. The formal process that follows could take as long as a year.
Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for the secretary general, said Wednesday that no letter had been received from Burundian lawmakers indicating their decision, and that “if a letter were received, it would be regrettable.”
All the while, Burundi would remain in the court’s jurisdiction, so a withdrawal would not spare the country from the current preliminary investigation.
Some in Burundi are worried.
“It is known in all of the world that the great predators of human rights are the governments,” said André Ndayizamba, one of the Burundian lawmakers to oppose the withdrawal. “The I.C.C. is not the problem. The problem is, we the Africans, we don’t know how to protect human rights.”