All this year, South Africa is using the centennial of Nelson Mandela’s birthday to take stock of his legacy.
It may also be trying to restore some of it.
Under a new president, Cyril Ramaphosa, the government hinted earlier this month that it might reverse a controversial decision in 2016 to withdraw from the International Criminal Court, a body set up just 20 years ago to seek justice for victims of the world’s mass atrocities. In 2015, South Africa even defied the court by failing to arrest one of the ICC’s most wanted suspects, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, during a visit.
Such moves were in sharp contrast to Mandela’s declaration in 1994, when he became South Africa’s president elected in is first multiracial election, that “human rights will be the light that guides our foreign policy.”
During his time in office, Mandela tried hard to end conflicts in Africa and boost democracy. He supported the the ICC on July 17, 1998. His successors, however, have often sided with dictators or ignored large-scale violence on the continent. President Ramaphosa, who came to power this year on an anti-corruption wave within the ruling African National Congress, appears to be focusing again on human rights.
A few other African nations had also threatened to leave the ICC, largely because most of the court’s early cases were focused on African leaders. Only Burundi has fully withdrawn. South Africa’s effort to exit was stymied by its own courts. Now the government intends to drop its objection to the ICC altogether.
The new mood in South Africa is reflected in its invitation for Barack Obama to deliver the main lecture during the Mandela centennial. In a talk July 18, the former US president noted how much Mandela’s values influenced his career as well as the lives of millions. “He came to embody the universal aspirations of dispossessed people all around the world, their hopes for a better life, the possibility of a moral transformation in the conduct of human affairs,” Mr. Obama said.
The creation of the ICC was based on a notion that when countries allow genocide or crimes against humanity within their borders, then an outside court must seek justice under the principle of universal jurisdiction. In setting up the court, the United Nations affirmed the idea that individual lives have a higher value than national sovereignty and that all nations must be held accountable to rule of law when mass atrocities occur.
The ICC enjoys wide support among Africans, according to one poll, even if it has achieved only a handful of convictions. Of the court’s 123 member states, 33 are African. Its mere presence is a threat to dictators and a deterrent to state-led violence.
That is why countries such as South Africa, which has an outsized influence in Africa, must continue to support the court. And what better way to honor Mandela than to stay true to his call for the country to focus on human rights.