South African leaders are divided over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s upcoming visit for a Brics summit following an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the Russian leader over the alleged transfer of children from Ukraine.
Mr Putin is expected to attend the 15th Brics summit, as he did in 2013, however this has not yet been officially confirmed. Such a visit would place the government of Cyril Ramaphosa in a difficult position, as the ICC warrant technically compels all 123 countries that have ratified the Rome Statute, including South Africa, to arrest him if he enters their territory. Of the eight countries Mr Putin has visited since the invasion of Ukraine last year, only Tajikistan has ratified the Rome Statute.
Announcing the arrest warrant last week, ICC president, Piotr Hofmanski, acknowledged the difficulties of enforcing it, saying “the execution depends on international co-operation”.
South Africa’s head of diplomacy at the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, Clayson Monyela, said the warrant is “not directed” at South Africa.
“We haven’t been asked to do anything by the ICC,” he told i.
On Sunday, a spokesperson for President Ramaphosa said the government was “cognisant of our legal obligation”.
“Between now and the summit we will remain engaged with various relevant stakeholders,” spokesperson Vincent Magwenya said. “It remains South Africa’s commitment and very strong desire that the conflict in Ukraine is resolved peacefully through negotiations.”
Yet Darren Bergman, shadow minister for international relations and co-operation and MP for the country’s opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), insisted that “the arrest warrant has been issued, we [South Africa] would be under instruction to arrest him”.
His party has called for Mr Putin to be arrested “the moment he sets foot on South African soil”.
Mr Bergman fears international repercussions could follow for South Africa if Mr Putin is able to enter the country without consequence.
“We can ill afford sanctions and our country must do anything in its power to ensure citizens are not brought closer to sanctions,” he said.
The South African Police Services declined to comment on whether they are compelled to arrest Mr Putin if he arrived in South Africa.
‘I’m not sure we’d have the guts to arrest him’
Mr Bergman questions his country’s commitment on the issue, saying “based on last time, I’m not sure we’d have the guts to [arrest him]” – in reference to the 2015 visit from then president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, who visited South Africa for an African Union (AU) meeting, despite the ICC having issued a warrant for his arrest for crimes against humanity in Darfur including genocide.
The South African government had granted immunity to all delegates visiting the country for the meeting and did not arrest him. This decision was fought and an application was filed by the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) to the Gauteng Province high court to overturn the government’s immunity. The court ultimately ruled al-Bashir should be arrested, having initially made an interim order that he couldn’t leave before it made a decision.
The government appealed to the Supreme Court of Appeal, which ultimately agreed that al-Bashir should have been detained in South Africa and handed to the ICC, but by the time both courts reached their decisions he had already left the country. Just as he had done in Kenya in 2011 and Nigeria in 2013, when facing the same ICC arrest warrant.
“We were in contempt there definitely,” said Mr Bergman. “We undermined and disrespected the level of intelligence of the international community.”
The SALC declined to comment on the warrant the ICC has for Mr Putin. The organisation said following the al-Bashir visit that South Africa had been “duty bound (by the Rome Statute of the ICC and its own domestic law) to arrest al-Bashir for transfer to the ICC in The Hague”.
Following the al-Bashir case, South Africa notified the UN it would withdraw from the Rome Statute in 2016 arguing the ICC sought regime change. However, the withdrawal ended up in the High Court and was later revoked.
As of today, South Africa remains a party to the ICC’s Rome Statute. Though South Africa and the 32 other African countries that are parties to the Rome Statute have, on more than once occasion, raised concerns that the ICC targets African governments and leaders to the exclusion of those in the Global North.
Mr Putin may avoid visiting South Africa in order to diffuse the risk, though Mr Bergman is not convinced.
“Russia seems to have blatant disregard for South Africa and the rules. I think that [the ICC warrant] might not stop them [coming to South Africa],” he said.
South Africa has faced criticism for its position on Russia amid the war in Ukraine. The country insists it is non-aligned and that has not changed since the beginning of the invasion, but recent activities including hosting Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and undertaking naval exercises with Russia in South African waters have led the opposition to question if that’s still the position in practice.
This week, the speaker of South Africa’s National Assembly, along with other MPs, was in Moscow for the second Russia-Africa international parliamentary conference, where delegates from more than 40 African countries attended.