/ 1 June 2023

South Africa’s justice ministry confirms receipt of ICC warrant for Putin

Russian president, Vladimir Putin. (Contributor/Getty Images)

The South African government has received the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the justice ministry confirmed to the Mail & Guardian

The warrant was sent to the government on Tuesday, justice minister Ronald Lamola’s spokesperson Chrispin Phiri said, adding that the ministry was still considering the application. 

“The Mail & Guardian is advised that the ICC issues warrants to all its members. To this end the warrant is not directed exclusively to the Republic of South Africa,” Phiri said.

“The department of justice and correctional services received the provisional arrest warrant of Vladimir Putin on 8 May 2023. All warrants are processed via the department to the director general, the minister and the relevant authorities.”

The ICC in March issued a warrant of arrest for Putin for crimes related to Russia’s war against Ukraine, placing South Africa — a signatory of the Rome Statute — in a precarious position with its trade allies in the West. The Rome Statute is the treaty that established the ICC and was adopted at a diplomatic conference in 1998 before coming into force in July 2002.

The receipt of the warrant comes as the minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Naledi Pandor, is preparing to host her counterparts within the Brics group (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) at a two-day meeting to discuss its upcoming summit in August.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, the most popular politician in the federation after Putin, will attend the meeting.

Pandor on Monday published a government gazette signing off on diplomatic immunity for the Brics summit, which Putin is expected to attend.

The department of international relations has said that granting immunities and privileges “is a standard conferment of immunities that we do for all international conferences and summits held in South Africa, irrespective of the level of participation”. The immunities are for the conference and not specific individuals, it added.

Some of the attendees to this week’s Brics meeting include Mauro Vieira of Brazil, India’s Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, China’s Qin Gang and friends of Brics such as Iran’s Hossein Abdollahian, Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia, Egypt’s Sameh Shoukry, Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi and Christophe Lutundula from the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Hovering over the meeting like a dark cloud is South Africa’s position in the Russia- Ukraine war as well as the ICC’s arrest warrant. Speaking to CNN this week, international relations director general Zane Dangor said South Africa would have to comply with the  warrant. 

“We will have to assess what happens over the next couple of weeks or so but whatever decision we make will be in line with our obligations to international law and our own domestic law,” Dangor said.

“South Africa will be obligated to act on the warrant if nothing changes between now and the next couple of months. We don’t know whether the engagement we are having with the Hague [ICC headquarters] around whether a waiver has been received from Russia, or whether they need the waiver. So these are the legal technicalities that we need to look at.”

Phiri said Lamola had clarified the government’s position when he addressed Parliament’s portfolio committee on justice and correctional services.

He said the minister was clear that a central feature of the Rome Statute is that state parties to the ICC are encouraged to investigate and prosecute ICC crimes domestically. 

“South Africa also domesticated the Rome Statute through the adoption of the implementation of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court Act 2002, thus affirming South Africa’s commitment to an international justice system,” Phiri said.

“Being a party to the Rome Statute means that the government of South Africa has an obligation to cooperate fully with the ICC by surrendering suspects against whom warrants of arrest have been issued, providing legal assistance in investigations and obtaining evidence.

“We agree with Amnesty International in its annual report that the inconsistency of the ICC in the execution of its work undermines the rule of law. The fact that an investigation into the atrocities in Palestine has not been completed while the one in Ukraine, opened later, already has a referral against a non-member state is an injustice. The people of Palestine must find justice in the ICC like any other citizens of the globe,” Phiri added.

The Democratic Alliance has already taken the matter to the high court, requesting a declaratory order which would force the government to arrest Putin. 

In his founding affidavit, DA leader John Steenhuisen argued that the government has only two legal options; that Pretoria ensures Putin does not visit the country while the arrest warrant is still valid or to arrest and surrender him to the ICC if he arrives. 

Steenhuisen said he had sought assurances from the government that Putin would either not be invited to the Brics summit or be arrested on arrival, but had received no response.

The M&G previously reported that Russia had rejected a request by the South African government for Putin to attend the Brics summit virtually.