Will South Africa arrest war criminal Vladimir Putin?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Dr Paul L. Vandoren
Dr Paul L. Vandoren

Former acting head of EU delegation to Russia and former EU ambassador to Croatia (residing in South Africa and Europe)

On 17 March 2023, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova. Both individuals have been accused of the deportation and illegal transfer of children from illegally occupied territories of Ukraine. It was found that Putin bears responsibility for having committed acts directly, jointly with others or through others, and “for his failure to exercise control properly over civilian and military subordinates who committed such acts.” These allegations are in line with the Rome Statute of the ICC.

The ICC Prosecutor, Karim Khan KC, stated that those responsible for these alleged crimes must be held accountable and that these children must be returned to their families and communities. According to the Prosecutor, “Incidents identified […] include the deportation of at least hundreds of children taken from orphanages and children’s care homes.” According to reliable sources, the number of deported children amounts to 15,000 to 20,000. “Many of these children, we allege, have since been given for adoption in the Russian Federation,” stated Khan. In fact, through presidential decrees issued by Putin, the law was changed in Russia to expedite the conferral of Russian citizenship, making it easier for children to be adopted by Russian families.

Subsequently, a high-ranking Russian representative issued a threat to use force against the ICC and its host country, The Netherlands. Since the ICC’s announcement, Russia has also announced measures against Khan and ICC judges involved in the issuance of the arrest warrants. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, strongly condemned these illegal Russian threats in a statement on 23 March 2023.

Russia and Ukraine are not parties to the Rome Statute of the ICC. What about South Africa?

The South African Government has shown that it is, in fact, not neutral in this conflict

South Africa became a party to the Rome Statute in 1998. However, in the aftermath of the refusal to arrest the former Sudanese president in 2015, South Africa formally notified the depositary of its intention to effectively withdraw from the Rome Statute on 19 October 2016. However, the notification was rescinded and effective as of 7 March 2017. This development must be seen in the context of the Order of the Pretoria High Court’s declaration that South Africa’s withdrawal from the Rome Statute was unconstitutional and invalid in February 2017 because of the lack of prior approval by parliament.

Hence, South Africa is bound to respect the arrest warrants and to arrest Putin if he decides to accept the invitation from the South African Government to attend the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) meeting in August 2023 and sets foot on the territory of South Africa. Putin’s invitation was recently confirmed by the South African Minister for International Relations, Grace Pandor, on 23 March 2023. She also stated that the arrest warrants constitute a ‘matter of concern’ and must be discussed with the country’s cabinet.

South Africa has the opportunity to correct its course of the last year, during which it adopted a so-called stance of neutrality, despite allowing a Russian ship to harbour in Cape Town under dubious circumstances, tolerating access of a ship of a Russian oligarch and hosting naval exercises with Russia and China in front of the coast of the Indian Ocean. One should also not forget about a number of mirky deals and alliances between Russia and South Africa that have been reported by media.

The South African Government has shown that it is, in fact, not neutral in this conflict. By not speaking out against Russia’s illegal invasion in Ukraine, South Africa has lent support to Russia, whose president has now been alleged of being guilty of war crimes.

President Ramaphosa, South African citizens do not support your position. Take responsibility and rectify the course of action in the real interests of your fellow citizens.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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