By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed regret on Friday that South Africa, Burundi and Gambia want to leave the International Criminal Court and said it could "send a wrong message on these countries' commitment to justice."
The International Criminal Court, which opened in July 2002 and has 124 member states, is the first legal body with permanent international jurisdiction to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
South Africa and Burundi have officially notified the United Nations of their intent to withdraw from the Rome Statute, the 1998 treaty establishing The Hague-based court, which will take effect in October 2017.
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Gambia said this week that it also plans to withdraw from the court, but it has not yet notified the United Nations.
Ban acknowledged the concerns of some countries which have accused the court of being too focused on Africa.
"These challenges are best addressed not by diminishing support for the Court, but by strengthening it from within," Ban told a U.N. Security Council meeting on cooperation between the world body and regional groups.
"Deterring future atrocities, delivering justice for victims, and defending the rules of war across the globe are far too important priorities to risk a retreat from the age of accountability that we have worked so hard to build and solidify," said Ban, who steps down at the end of this year.
The withdrawal of South Africa and Burundi from the court are likely to embolden other African countries to leave.
(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)