24 February 2023 marked the one year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and, with it, Europe’s biggest war since the Second World War. The suffering and human rights abuses accompanied by this invasion has been staggering and undeniable, and the full extent thereof may not be known, or even fully calculable, for years to come – from the thousands of deaths and millions of people displaced to the scramble for alternative energy sources in Europe and soaring food costs worldwide, the consequences continue to echo around the world.
The international outrage following this invasion was swift and Governments around the globe have imposed strict sanctions against Russia in efforts to de-escalate the situation, albeit with very limited success to date. The United Nations General Assembly at a recent emergency meeting also voted with overwhelming support to adopt a resolution condemning the invasion and calling for Russia to “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine”.
141 nations voted in favour of this resolution, with 7 voting against and 32 opting to abstain from voting. South Africa, to both local and international outrage, abstained from the vote. South Africa is one of very few countries who have kept political ties with Russia since the start of the war, with President Cyril Ramaphosa insisting that we can play a role in peace talks. Tellingly, South Africa was joined in abstaining by two of its fellow BRICS members, namely India and China. BRICS is an acronym for a grouping of five of the world’s leading emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (with the latter joining in 2010). Ironically, according to the South African government’s official website, BRICS “aims to promote peace, security, development and cooperation” as well as “contributing significantly to the development of humanity and establishing a more equitable and fair world”.
On 17 March 2023 a further significant development took place in this ongoing saga when the International Criminal Court in the Hague (ICC) formally issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin over allegations that he, through the war in Ukraine, conducted the illegal deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia – which constitutes a war crime. All member states of the International Criminal Court, which includes South Africa, are accordingly legally bound to arrest and detain Putin if he sets foot in that country.
This poses a potentially huge dilemma for South Africa – who is due to host the next annual BRICS summit in August this year, with Vladimir Putin widely expected to attend. So what happens if he does?
Russia itself has been defiant in the wake of the arrest warrant, not only alleging that the ICC has no authority over the territory of the Russian Federation, but actively threatening the international community by stating that any country that arrests Putin would be declaring war on Russia.
A spokesperson for Ramaphosa recently acknowledged South Africa’s legal obligations, stating that “We are, as the government, cognisant of our legal obligation. However, between now and the summit we will remain engaged with various relevant stakeholders”. South Africa’s Minister of International
Relations and Cooperation, Ms Naledi Pandor, further stated that government will have to discuss the warrant and also consult with the Russian side. This reluctance to commit to act in accordance with the warrant goes beyond Russia’s posturing and threats, and to fully understand this one must also be mindful of the long standing history between Russia and South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC). Russia not only provided military training, weapons, money and medical care to the ANC during the fight against Apartheid, but many in the current ANC leadership were educated in and / or still have economic ties to Russia.
Of course, South Africa already has a complicated history when it comes to international justice. In 2015 the country faced criticism and condemnation for failing to arrest the then-President of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, when he attended an African Union summit while he was himself the subject of an ICC indictment. The ANC’s ties to Putin far outweigh those with al-Bashir.
So it is clear that South Africa, legally, has a duty to arrest and detain Vladimir Putin if he attends the BRICS summit later this year. The probability of this actually happening however, despite the risk of further international outrage and even possible sanctions, appears increasingly remote. It seems far more likely, as already alluded to in official statements, that the South African government will be engaging their Russian counterparts in the coming months, imploring (begging even) for Putin not to attend.