South Africa backtracks on withdrawing from the International Criminal Court after an arrest warrant against Putin

South Africa’s president has walked back allegations that his party wants to quit the International Criminal Court, ahead of a scheduled visit to the country by Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who was indicted last month for war crimes in Ukraine.

Cyril Ramaphosa had “unfortunately . . . wrongly confirmed” in comments he made at a press conference on Tuesday that the ruling African National Congress was planning to leave the court, his office said.

The Hague-based court has issued an arrest warrant for Putin over the deportation of children in occupied parts of Ukraine, throwing chaos over South Africa’s plans for a summit with the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and other BRICS nations in August. As a member of the International Criminal Court, Pretoria would be obligated to detain Putin upon his arrival.

Ramaphosa had earlier claimed that the ANC had decided “it would be wise for South Africa to withdraw from the ICC because of the way the ICC is seen to deal with these kinds of problems”.

But his office said later on Tuesday that “the presidency wishes to make it clear that South Africa remains a signatory [to the court] And it will continue to fight for the equal and consistent application of international law.”

Ramaphosa’s mistake would cause severe diplomatic embarrassment for South Africa at a time when Putin’s indictment exposed tensions over the country’s stance on the war in Ukraine and its close ties with Russia.

Ramaphosa has friendly relations with Putin, and members of his cabinet have said Russia should not be directly condemned for the invasion, while also questioning Western support for Kiev. South Africa held joint naval exercises with Russia on the anniversary of the invasion this year.

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A Russian military frigate is in Richards Bay, South Africa, for joint naval exercises with South Africa and China in February. © Russian Defense Ministry / AFP via Getty Images

Withdrawal from the ICC will in no way change the dilemma facing the Ramaphosa government if Putin attends the BRICS summit in August while he is being impeached. Analysts said it would take several months for the court to leave even if the move was approved at home.

The ANC only recently canceled earlier plans to withdraw from the ICC after South Africa ignored an ICC warrant to arrest Omar al-Bashir, the former president of Sudan, in 2015.

Taking a step back on Tuesday, South Africa’s presidency said the party had “considered possible withdrawal from the ICC as an option that might arise as a measure of last resort” in the absence of reforms to the court.

South Africa was one of the first countries to ratify the Rome Statute founding the court in 2000, committing it to assisting in ICC trials. However, some in the ANC believe that the ICC has been biased against developing countries in its investigations.

The Bashir incident severely damaged the post-apartheid democracy’s reputation as a supporter of international law and multilateral institutions. But it also set a precedent in South African law for ICC arrest warrants to be followed after the courts attacked the country’s failure to make an arrest.

It remains unclear whether Putin will attend the summit in Johannesburg in person. Ramaphosa said the matter was “still under study and discussion” in light of the arrest warrant issued by the ICC.

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said this week that a decision on Putin’s attendance would be closer to appointment. He did not respond to a request for comment.

“It’s quite a dilemma for the South African government,” said Priel Singh, a senior research fellow at the South African Institute for Security Studies, suggesting that a diplomatic solution could still be found, such as sending Putin a minister instead or attending online.

Gerhard Kemp, professor of international and transnational criminal justice at the University of Derby in the UK, said the Ramaphosa government could instead seek to argue the legal basis for the ICC warrant if Putin is confirmed to attend the summit.

“It would be the honorable way to go,” Kemp said, “instead of trying to ignore the memo.” It’s not just about Putin. It will be a test of the South African legal system and the authority of the courts.”

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