ICC Arrest Warrant for Putin Upends South African Summit Plans

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South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has announced that Russian President Vladimir Putin will no longer be participating in a summit scheduled for August. This decision comes following the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) issuance of an arrest warrant for the Russian president. As a signatory to the ICC, South Africa is obligated to detain suspects in its territory. However, Ramaphosa has warned that an attempted arrest of Putin would be seen as an act of war by Russia.

The parameters for warfare are set by international agreements such as the Geneva Conventions. Grave offenses including mass persecution, murder, and rape fall under the category of “crimes against humanity” or, depending on the context, “genocide”. It is a violation of international law for military forces to deliberately target civilians or the structures they rely on, such as power stations. Furthermore, certain weapons are prohibited, including anti-personnel mines and chemical or biological weapons. There’s an implied duty to provide care for the wounded, including injured soldiers who are protected as prisoners of war.

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According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, Russian authorities are accused of forcibly removing over 16,000 children from Ukraine and transporting them to Russia. Moreover, the UN alleges Russian forces in Ukraine have committed rape, torture, killings, and possibly crimes against humanity by deliberately attacking civilian infrastructure such as dams and power stations. Russia has categorically rejected all these accusations.

South Africa’s involvement stems from the planned visit by Putin in August for a conference of the Brics nations, which includes Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Following the issuance of the ICC’s arrest warrant, South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, has sought a court order for Putin’s arrest if he were to visit. However, Ramaphosa has cautioned against this, stating that it would be perceived as a war declaration by Russia. Notably, South Africa has previously disregarded the ICC’s directives, allowing Sudan’s then-president, Omar al-Bashir, charged with genocide and war crimes, to depart from a South African air base in 2015.

The ICC has the power to prosecute political leaders for initiating unjustified invasions or conflicts. It has been scrutinizing potential war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine since 2013, before Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. In March 2023, ICC issued arrest warrants for President Putin and Russia’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova. However, Russia, not being a signatory to the ICC, is unlikely to extradite Putin or Lvova-Belova.

Meanwhile, Ukraine has been proactive in its pursuit of justice for war crimes. The first conviction took place in May 2022 when Russian tank commander Vadim Shishimarin, 21, was sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering an unarmed civilian. Moreover, as of July 2022, Ukraine’s prosecutor-general, Iryna Venediktova, announced an ongoing investigation into over 21,000 war crimes and crimes of aggression purportedly carried out by Russian forces since the onset of the conflict. She revealed that 600 suspects had been identified with 80 prosecutions underway. By March 2023, as per Reuters, at least 26 war crimes suspects had been convicted by Ukrainian courts.