The court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for the Russian leader on March 17 for war crimes involving the deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia. South Africa is a signatory to the ICC’s Rome Statute that obligates countries to execute the court’s international arrest warrants.
But Pretoria is also a close ally with Moscow and has refrained from criticizing Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine – going as far as holding bilateral talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov earlier this year and hosting Russian war ships in February for joint military exercises.
Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s minister for international relations, told local radio station SAfm in an interview that the government was awaiting a refreshed legal opinion on the matter and would then consider its options.
“It is a difficult situation, but, you know, I think that the Cabinet needs to discuss this,” she said. “Once I have the opinion I will take it to Cabinet, so our actions will be guided by the overall views of government.”
However, the minister demurred on the possibility of withdrawing Putin’s invitation to the summit of the group of emerging economic powers known as BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. South Africa is due to host a summit of the bloc’s leaders this August. Moscow has not yet confirmed whether Putin will attend in person.
Pandor also criticized the ICC for not having what she called an “evenhanded approach” to all leaders responsible for abuses of international law, and for focusing on some states rather than others.
But Darren Bergman, shadow minister for international relations with South Africa’s main opposition party the Democratic Alliance, said the government must stick by its ICC commitments.
“The Democratic Alliance believes that the Cabinet should not be extending the invitation any more to President Putin and therefore should withdraw that invitation,” he said. “If they do not, they should be ready to effect the warrant of arrest on President Putin.”
Steven Gruzd, a Russia analyst at the South African Institute for International Affairs, told VOA there are a number of routes the government could take. It could dodge the issue by making the BRICS summit virtual, withdraw from the court entirely, or, most likely, he said, they could try looking for some sort of diplomatic immunity for Putin as a sitting head of state.
“We’ve seen this dilemma before,” he said. “In 2015, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan came to South Africa for the African Union Summit and South Africa was ordered to arrest him. There was a local court order. But this was ignored and defied, and he was allowed to escape from a military base.”
Lunga Ngqengelele, a spokesman for South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation told VOA the Cabinet would likely discuss the matter this week.