OTTAWA -- Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion pushed back at critics of the International Criminal Court on Wednesday after three African countries indicated they would pull out amid charges the court is biased against their continent.

Dion said he used his recent trip to Africa to shore up support for The Hague-based court. He said Canada is "deeply saddened" by the decision of South Africa, Burundi and Gambia to serve notice of their intentions to leave the court.

"We created the court together. We must keep it together," Dion says in the prepared text of a speech he delivered in The Hague at the 124-country meeting known as the Assembly of States Parties.

Dion challenged the assertion that the court has been biased against African countries because nine of 10 active cases are focusing on the continent.

He said African countries referred five of those cases to the court, while two more -- Darfur and Libya -- were direct references from the UN Security Council.

"The fact that there are more cases in Africa does not reflect a bias. The court is responding to real needs."

Dion discussed the future of the court during his recent trip to Kenya, Ethiopia and Nigeria. He also said he was encouraged that other African countries, including Botswana, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Tanzania, Ghana, Malawi and Senegal, have publicly endorsed the court.

"Canada is here today to join these voices and to work respectfully with all countries to find a way to strengthen the court for all."

Canada played a leading role in the creation of the court in the late 1990s by giving financial and diplomatic support to help craft the Rome Statute, the treaty that gave rise to it.

Dion said the court has had successes since it began operating in 2002, including curbing the recruitment of child soldiers and reducing gender and sex-based crime.

But he also acknowledged that some critics have a legitimate beef about the court's legitimacy because the United States, China and Russia -- three fifths of the permanent Security Council -- have not joined the court.

"Canada would like to see the Rome Statute eventually become universal," Dion said.

Russia doubled down on its opposition to the court on Wednesday, as President Vladimir Putin issued what amounted to a weightless decree saying it too was withdrawing from the court -- even though it never joined it in the first place.

South African Justice Minister Michael Mathura used The Hague meeting to restate his government's opposition to the court.

"They choose to turn a blind eye and rather focus on one geopolitical space to the exclusion of all others," Mathura said.

"The principle of universality of the application of rule of law has to be at the heart of the institution. If they are not willing to uphold that principle, their credibility will continue to be eroded."

The U.S. has opposed joining the court because it does not want any of its military personnel to face prosecution. Former U.S. president George W. Bush has expressed concerns that Americans could face unfair prosecution for political reasons.

The Obama administration supported the court in its investigation of possible war crimes in Libya in 2011, but maintained the exemption for U.S. military personnel.

Earlier this week, the court's chief prosecutor said American troops in Afghanistan might have tortured as many as 61 detainees in their custody between May 2003 and December 2014. Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda also said CIA agents may have subjected at least 27 detainees to torture and cruel treatment in Afghanistan, Poland, Romania and Lithuania.

"It is also important to remember that the court's role in seeking justice has never been just about punishment," Dion said.

"It is also about shining a light on grave wrongs, and recognizing the terrible suffering of those affected. It is about truth-telling, and making amends for the past, so that societies can move forward."