Africans should help bring Putin to the ICC

Africa’s disgruntlement with the international court’s hypocrisy should not impede justice for Ukraine’s stolen children.

Vladimir Putin
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the ICC charges against Russia's President Vladimir Putin 'outrageous and unacceptable' [File: Sputnik/Vladimir Astapkovich/Kremlin via Reuters]

On March 17, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and its Commissioner for Children’s Rights Maria Lvova-Belova for the war crimes of illegal deportation and transfer of Ukrainian children from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.

The crimes were allegedly committed from at least February 24, 2023 – the day Russia embarked on an all-out invasion of Ukraine.

Russian officials have since dismissed the ICC indictment and closed ranks around their accused leader.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the charges “outrageous and unacceptable”, as well as “null and void” because Russia – like China and the United States – does not recognise the jurisdiction of the ICC.

Former President Dmitry Medvedev described the intergovernmental body as a “legal non-entity”, as he warned that any attempt to arrest Putin “would be a declaration of war on the Russian Federation”.

But ICC President Piotr Hofmanski said it is “completely irrelevant” that Russia has not ratified the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the ICC.

“The court has jurisdiction over crimes committed in the territory of a state party or a state which has accepted its jurisdiction,” he told Al Jazeera. “Ukraine has accepted the ICC twice – in 2014 and then in 2015.”

So, as things stand, the ICC’s 123 member states are obliged to detain and transfer Putin to the organisation’s headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands should he land in their territory.

As the second sitting head of state to be charged with war crimes, Putin’s prosecution would be a significant achievement for international justice.

The first was former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who in March 2009 and July 2010 was charged with committing genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes during the 2003-08 Darfur war.

According to the United Nations, the bloody conflict between the Sudanese government and rebel forces killed at least 300,000 people and displaced 2.5 million.

Regardless of the veracity of the charges made against al-Bashir, the landmark indictment amplified widespread disgruntlement in Africa over the ICC’s inordinate focus on investigating and prosecuting African leaders.

In 2010, the African Union (AU) urged its member states to “not cooperate with the ICC in the arrest and surrender of President Bashir”, allowing countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Chad, Djibouti, Nigeria and South Africa, among others, to roll out the red carpet for him.

Only a few countries, including Botswana and Malawi, expressed their willingness to arrest al-Bashir. South Africa famously refused to arrest him in 2015, while he was attending an AU summit in Johannesburg, saying he enjoyed diplomatic immunity. Al-Bashir eventually left the country in unclear circumstances after a South African court ordered his arrest. Later, the Southern African nation argued that it believed it had no responsibility under international law or the Rome Statute to arrest a serving head of a non-state party.

Meanwhile, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) rightly bemoaned the fact that because “countries can choose whether to be a signatory or not” of the ICC, it meant that “gross human violations committed by non-signatory countries go unpunished”.

This was a valid and pertinent observation.

In 2020, for instance, the US denounced an ICC investigation into the actions of US troops in Afghanistan.

It labelled The Hague-based tribunal a “kangaroo court” and imposed sanctions on former prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and a senior official, Phakiso Mochochoko.

So the ANC had described the structural and operational deficiencies of the ICC in clear terms and inadvertently made the case for across-the-board reforms. But it did not suggest an alternative court for the thousands of men, women and children who had been raped and killed in state-orchestrated systemic violence in Darfur.

Nearly eight years after he escaped arrest in Johannesburg, al-Bashir still has not stood trial for his alleged crimes in a Sudanese, African or international court.

While African countries were right to condemn the fundamental shortcomings of the ICC, they should not have obstructed the sincere attempts to secure justice for the people of Darfur.

Like other global institutions that are hamstrung by the violent, lawless and regressive policies and actions of global powers, the ICC must be reformed and decolonised.

In the meantime, Africa’s leaders should not repeat the mistakes they made regarding al-Bashir’s unenforced arrest.

From August 22 to 24, 2023, South Africa will host the 15th BRICS summit, with leaders from Brazil, India, China and Russia expected to attend.

Should the obstinate and increasingly belligerent Putin attend the meeting, South Africa must respect its obligations to the ICC and arrest him, even though Russia is a longstanding ANC ally.

The Soviet Union provided considerable financial, military and political support to South African and African movements during the struggles for independence. Nevertheless, that commendable assistance cannot justify any South African or African attempt to stop Putin from assuming responsibility for his alleged war crimes.

International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor has confirmed that South Africa has sought legal advice on how to handle a visit from an alleged war criminal.

The South African Communist Party (SACP), meanwhile, has characterised the ICC as “a supra-national institution at the service of imperialist states”. And Julius Malema, commander-in-chief of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, has pledged to protect Putin if he lands in South Africa.

Unsurprisingly, the SACP and EFF condemned the ICC for its failure to charge and arrest former US President George W Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair for orchestrating the long and brutal Iraq war.

In 2003, the US, the United Kingdom and several allies invaded Iraq under the false pretext that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction – an imperialist war effort that killed at least 200,000 civilians and caused regional instability.

Nonetheless, Malema and company are fighting the wrong battle and deliberately misconstruing the essence of international humanitarian laws and global justice.

Bush and Blair should certainly face the full might of the law for transgressing Iraq’s sovereignty on false grounds.

But Putin’s culpability for war crimes in Ukraine cannot be diminished, expunged or disputed over the US’s countless military transgressions around the world.

South Africa must thus publicly reaffirm its commitment to support international justice before the BRICS summit and state its willingness to arrest Putin. No African nation that is committed to the establishment of a fair and equitable international order can ignore his murderous and destructive conduct.

Suffice it to say, as many judicial systems in Africa are either politically compromised or constantly undermined by despotic leaders, Africa must abandon its redundant whataboutism and instead strive to ensure the ICC becomes a strong and independent multilateral institution.

And in as much as they advocate for legal redress for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed in an unjust war, Africans should also seek justice for the victims of war crimes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, Myanmar and Ukraine.

No one – not even US President Joe Biden, China’s President Xi Jinping or Putin – must be allowed to contravene international law and avoid the requisite legal consequences – especially with the support of Africa.

African states must view Putin’s indictment as the perfect opportunity to abolish once and for all the longstanding impunity claimed and perpetrated by global powers.

The Russian leader must be ostracised and made to understand that the world will not support the genocidal mayhem that he has orchestrated in Ukraine.

If he lands in South Africa or elsewhere in Africa, please arrest him.

Putin should face the court.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.