"Dont go!" That was the heartfelt appeal to African nations as the International Criminal Court opened its annual meeting Wednesday under the cloud of a wave of unprecedented defections.
Gambia on Monday formally notified the United Nations that it was withdrawing from the court, following in the wake of South Africa and Burundi.
"Don't go," pleaded Senegalese politician Sidiki Kaba, the president of the ICC's Assembly of State Parties meeting in The Hague.
The tribunal opened in 2002 in The Hague as a court of last resort to try the world's worst crimes. But in his passionate plea, Kaba admitted it was going through a "difficult moment".
He acknowledged some had seen "injustice" in the investigations brought before the court so far, but he offered reassurances, saying: "You have been heard."
The court had to redouble its efforts to convince countries to return, and to ensure that there was truly universal justice for all, Kaba said.
Amid accusations of bias against Africa, Kenya, Namibia and Uganda have also indicated they are considering pulling out of the Rome Statute, the ICC's founding treaty.
'Do not betray the victims'
"Though the powerful may seek to leave the court, the victims everywhere plead for its involvement," UN human rights commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said.
He insisted "there is no substitute for the ICC" and in the long term "these states will boomerang back as the court is accepted by more and more states".
"By withdrawing from the Rome Statute, leaders may shield themselves, but it would be at the cost of depriving their people of a unique form of protection."
He warned "a new trend of isolationism" sweeping the world would trigger more attacks on the court.
"Now is not the time to abandon the post, now is the time of resolve and strength," Zeid said.
"Do not betray the victims, nor your own people... stand by the court... it is the best that we have."
The defections will take a year to come into force.
Currently nine out of the 10 ICC investigations are in African countries. The other is in Georgia.
But on the eve of the meeting, ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda revealed there was a "reasonable basis" to believe US troops as well as the Taliban and Afghan forces may have committed war crimes in Afghanistan.
In her annual report, she said she would decide "imminently" whether to ask to launch a full-blown investigation in Afghanistan.
If the investigation goes ahead, the tribunal would be taking on its most complex and politically controversial investigation to date.