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Putin digital presence at BRICS summit comes with risks, critical repercussions for South Africa

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Mia Swart is Visiting Professor in the School of Law at the University of the Witwatersrand.

If SA is serious about its commitments under the ICC Statute and its international reputation, it would not associate with Putin or with senior members of the Russian government — not even virtually.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s decision to disinvite Russian president Vladimir Putin from physically attending the BRICS summit later in August has been widely met with praise and relief.

Some praised the South African government for deftly saving South Africa from a legal and diplomatic conundrum. Some have even praised Putin for not wanting to “jeopardise” the summit.

Not so fast. BRICS will still not be an entirely Putin-free summit. South Africa’s ambassador at large for Asia and BRICS, Anil Sooklal, confirmed that Putin would take part in the proceedings virtually. The Russian leader will participate in all discussions, said Sooklal.

It was further confirmed that Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov will attend in Putin’s stead.

Putin’s digital presence inevitably comes with consequences for South Africa as the hosting nation.

The fact that Putin will be welcomed at the summit, albeit in virtual form, and the fact that Lavrov will be attending means that South Africa is still closely associating with an indicted alleged war criminal as well as a member of the Russian government who could potentially be accused of war crimes.

Lavrov’s hands are unlikely to be clean. He has been a staunch supporter of the illegal invasion of Ukraine from the start. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has accused Lavrov of being an accomplice to crimes occurring in Ukraine.

But, it may be asked, if Lavrov is complicit, why has the ICC not issued a warrant for his arrest? It is important to understand that the fact that the ICC has not (yet) issued an arrest warrant for a suspected war criminal does not mean that he or she may not be charged in the future.

The two arrest warrants issued by the ICC in the Ukrainian situation so far, against Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, were specifically for the war crime of unlawful deportation of children and the unlawful transfer of population (children) from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.

These were merely the first two warrants issued by the ICC in an ongoing investigation. The Ukrainian situation has now been under investigation for eight months. By ICC standards, this is still a relatively fresh investigation.

Arrest warrant criteria

Depending on the situation under investigation, the ICC issues arrest warrants in different ways and in different stages. At times the court has issued all its arrest warrants in one go, and at other times it issued arrest warrants in a more staggered fashion.

In the case of Uganda, five arrest warrants were issued at the same time. For strategic considerations, in the cases of Sudan and Libya for example, the court issued warrants in a more staggered way.

The court has also issued arrest warrants against accused of various levels of seniority. In some cases, such as Mali, the court targeted mid-level perpetrators and in others, such as Sudan, high-level perpetrators.

One reason the ICC issued arrest warrants against Putin and Lvova-Belova is that the court already has sufficient evidence to prove the crime of the unlawful deportation of children. But as the Ukraine investigation continues, and investigations can take many years, it is very likely that the ICC will issue arrest warrants against other members of the Russian government as well.

The court can also amend an arrest warrant by adding more charges. In the case of Sudanese president Omar Al Bashir for example, Al Bashir was initially charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was later charged with genocide as well.

In the same way, Putin can later be charged with additional crimes. It has been estimated that 80,000 war crimes have been committed since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war. It may take time to produce the evidence legally required to link Putin to these crimes, but as the ICC investigation progresses, it is highly likely that such links will be made.

Hosting Putin, virtually or in person, comes with reputational consequences for South Africa. If South Africa is serious about its commitments under the ICC Statute and its international reputation, it would not associate with Putin or with senior members of the Russian government.

In the debates and debacles of the last months in South Africa, the human toll of the war has been vastly underappreciated. The human lives include not only Ukrainian refugees and casualties, but also the Russian victims of Putin’s war.

If South Africa does not want even a drop of blood on its hands it should distance itself from the perpetrators. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • sdcele says:

    South Africa has insisted that they are neutral when it comes to war between Russia and Ukraine therefore what you are suggesting would be viewed as a clear indicator that they have picked a side. Also to suggest that SA should distance themselves from Russia in order to show commitment to the ICC means that they would have to risk their commitments to BRICS. The question to be answered is what’s more valuable to SA. Is the relationship with BRICS more important than their ICC commitments?

    • Epsilon Indi says:

      What’s more important to South Africa than BRICS, well it’s reputation for one thing, but then South Africa and its loser government, like Russia, have shown a preference for being the polecats of the world. AGOA is also more important than BRICS because one would assume the SA government would care more about jobs and their citizens than BRICS but once again, choosing the wrong option seems to be a speciality of the imbeciles in power in South Africa.

  • Scott Gordon says:

    Lots of noise about the ICC and Putin , curiously quiet about Xi !
    Wonder why ?

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    Honestly sdcele – put your thinking cap on! What was the whole purpose of the struggle against apartheid? Democracy, human rights, freedom! The anc wanted the world’s assistance in fighting apartheid and unlike what they want everybody to believe, it wasn’t only the Russians, Chinese and Cubans who were involved, many Western countries and Ukraine were as well. As for the putrid anc of today, they are denying the same human rights, freedom and democracy to Ukraine and are siding and blindly/willingly supporting a most evil mass-murdering monster in Putin and his poodles. Furthermore, our country’s interest dictates that we look after our population not just narrow idiotic and kleptocratic anc interests i.e. creating jobs, fostering and increasing trade, investment etc. Russia by comparison to the West is a pathetic non-event. Be part of BRICS, but do not be stupidly anti-West and be non-aligned, which SA under the spineless, treasonous and immoral cyril/anc is anything but. And don’t court the West with one hand with the begging bowl and with the hand give them the middle finger. It just shows how disgraceful, immoral and unscrupulous the rotten and stinking anc is.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    The author is right to raise this important question … about morality and ethics ! Sadly … in politics these are at the bottom of the pile … if they still exist, or are just trotted out as scent to cover a very smelly or rotten underbelly. Very few (exceptions) make ethics the basis for their convictions and actions .. preferring to play word ‘games’ (sophistry) about the issues you raise. It is a feckless pool they swim in … not unlike the one most ‘lawyers’ operate in. Which makes them such great bedfellows !

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