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S. African President Urged to Honor ICC Warrant for Sudan's al-Bashir

Prominent South African individuals and civil society groups have urged President Jacob Zuma to publicly state that he respects the country's constitution and treaty obligations. The call follows an African Union decision not to honor the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for Sudan President Omar al-Bashir.

The call on President Zuma comes from 17 of the country's prominent civil society groups, including the constitutionally mandated Human Rights Commission. Individuals supporting the call include Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu and Richard Goldstone, former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

In a statement, the organizations and individuals said the decision by the African Union to withhold cooperation from the ICC with respect to the warrant for Mr. al-Bashir represents the most serious challenge to the struggle against impunity and lawlessness on the African continent.

Howard Varney, from Cape Town's International Center for Transitional Justice tells VOA that Mr. Zuma and his foreign minister did not voice any objection to the AU decision. Varney says Mr. Zuma's legal obligations are plain.

"This is to make the position of civil society, or at least many prominent organizations within civil society, to make our position clear that we expect our government and President Jacob Zuma to abide by the treaty obligations that South Africa has entered into, but not only the treaty obligations but also our own constitution which requires us to abide by international law, which in fact in relation to the Rome Statute we have incorporated the enabling statute of the International Criminal Court into our domestic law," he said.

Varney says if Mr. Zuma fails to publicly state his willingness to cooperate with the ICC and if Mr. al-Bashir enters South African territory, he will be sending a message that for him and his government the rule of law is a matter of expediency.

"And if on one day one can decide to abide by the law, and on another decide it is no longer suitable or convenient for us to do so, it certainly, and I believe fundamentally, undermines our commitment to the rule of law and sends out the wrong message to those who are breaking the law," said Varney.

Some African leaders, including Ghanaian President John Atta Mills have argued that Mr. al-Bashir is central to the peace process in Sudan, which would likely collapse if he were arrested. Varney disagrees.

"We do not believe it is. If it in fact was, and relevant supporting information had been put to the Security Council, then I am sure the Security Council would have considered that and invoked Article 16 of their own statute, which allows for the referral that the Mbeki panel of the AU have called for," he said. "Certain information that is emerging from Sudan is that al-Bashir himself does not necessarily make or break the agreement."

Many African countries played a crucial role in the establishment of the ICC, which they saw as a way to combat genocide and crimes against humanity on the continent. Thirty African countries have signed the so-called Rome Statute to become State Parties to the Court, and most cases referred to the court for investigation have been referred by African countries.