South Africa on the spot after ICC indicts Putin on Ukraine war crimes

Tuesday March 21 2023
South Africas's President Cyril Ramaphosa

South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa. In August this year, Russian leader Vladimir Putin, whom ICC wants arrested, is scheduled to attend the BRICS summit in Pretoria. PHOTO | SERGIO LIMA | AFP


South Africa may find itself in the spotlight again after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin, accusing him of war crimes in Ukraine.

But that may bring bad memory for South Africa’ capital Pretoria which has enjoyed tight relations with Moscow in spite of Western condemnations.

Read: South Africa turns to Russia for food

In August this year, the Russian leader is scheduled to attend the BRICS (acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) summit in Pretoria, a scenario that may repeat the Omar al-Bashir conundrum.


L-R: BRICS members India PM Narendra Modi; China President Xi Jinping; South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Russian President Vladmir Putin and Brazilian President Michel Temer. PHOTO | AFP

Along with Putin, Russia’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, is also wanted by the ICC.


The court alleges that President Putin is responsible for war crimes, including the unlawful deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia. 

It says the crimes were committed from February 24, 2022 after Russia sent its troops into Ukraine.

Read: Deadly Russian strikes pound Ukraine

As a signatory to the Rome Statute, South Africa is obligated to arrest suspects on its soil regardless of status. Most African countries when confronted with this situation, have chosen to ignore the court.

In June 2015, South Africa’s former president Jacob Zuma refused to arrest the former Sudanese President while attending an African Union (AU) summit in Johannesburg. Subsequent decisions of local courts reprimanded the country’s government for failing to adhere to the ICC.

With Moscow denying allegations of war crimes during the invasion, South Africa will likely distance itself from the warrants. Like Bashir, Putin is indicted while serving as head of state which is not a member of the Rome Statute, the formative law of the ICC.

The International Criminal Court.

The International Criminal Court at The Hague in Netherlands. PHOTO | FILE | AFP

The Southern African country has insisted it remains impartial in the conflict, also abstaining from voting on a United Nations (UN) resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and calling for Moscow to withdraw its forces immediately.

Along with 34 other countries, South Africa also abstained from a vote at the UN condemning Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territories in October.

Russia responds

Russia has already responded to the warrant, with its foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova saying it is meaningless. 

“The decisions of the ICC have no meaning for our country including from a legal point of view,” Zakharova said.

The ICC, however, has no powers to arrest suspects and can only exercise jurisdiction within countries signed up to its agreement. 

Russia is not an ICC signatory, meaning President Putin cannot be extradited. This country is not a party to the Rome Statute of the ICC and bears no obligations under it, Zakharova added.

Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin welcomed the warrant saying it was “historic for Ukraine and the entire international law system”.