• Tue. May 30th, 2023

Vladimir Putin could be arrested if he goes to BRICS Summit in South Africa

There’s a diplomatic time bomb quietly ticking away on Vladimir Putin’s desk, buried under the casualty reports, gloomy economic figures and other products of his failing invasion of Ukraine. It is not yet urgent, but it can’t be ignored forever.

In August, South Africa will host the BRICS Summit, an annual meeting with the leaders of Brazil, India, China and, crucially, Russia. Putin must decide whether or not to attend. It’s an impossible choice, in a sense, because both options carry risk.

On one side of the scales is the Russian President’s ego and already tarnished reputation. On the other is his freedom.

Writing for The Guardian today, former British prime minister Gordon Brown describes the summit as an important “fork in the road” for Putin.

“Either Putin attends the BRICS Summit, risking arrest, or by staying away he exposes his fear of being arrested. Whichever outcome, a line will be crossed,” Mr Brown says.

‘No option but to arrest him’

The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Putin in March, citing the abduction and forced deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.

“We must ensure that those responsible for alleged crimes are held accountable, and that children are returned to their families and communities,” ICC prosecutor Karim Khan said at the time.

“Incidents identified by my office include the deportation of at least hundreds of children taken from orphanages and children’s care homes … we cannot allow children to be treated as if they are the spoils of war.”

The court said there were “reasonable grounds to believe that Mr Putin bears individual criminal responsibility”.

The indictment of a sitting head of state is rare, but it means Putin can be arrested if he sets foot in any country that has ratified the Rome Statute, which underpins the ICC.

South Africa is one such country. It’s also a Russian ally, having refused to condemn the invasion of Ukraine or support sanctions against Putin’s regime. The nation’s government, led by President Cyril Ramaphosa, has spent the last several weeks dithering and seeking legal advice – but there’s no easy way out of the dilemma.

Late last month, Mr Ramaphosa suggested his country would go so far as to withdraw from the ICC to let Putin attend the BRICS Summit.

“It is prudent that South Africa should pull out of the ICC,” he said.

That stance quickly proved to be unsustainable, as it did in 2016, when the South African government actually tried to withdraw from the ICC and was blocked by the Supreme Court, which ruled the move was unconstitutional. Mr Ramaphosa backtracked.

Soon afterwards it emerged that his government had received clear legal advice: ignoring the ICC’s arrest warrant, and allowing Putin into the country without arresting him, would breach not only South Africa’s international obligations but its own laws as well.

“There is no option not to arrest Putin. If he comes here, we have to arrest him,” a senior government official who had seen the legal advice told Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper.

South Africa is now urging Putin to address the summit via a video link from Moscow.

Russia has so far indicated that Putin intends to fly to Cape Town and attend in person, though its public statements have remained vague.

“Of course, we will take part in the summit to be held in South Africa,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in April.

“Of course, this will be preceded by our bilateral contacts with the South Africans, we will clarify their position.”

So, for Putin, the awkward choice remains: go to South Africa and risk arrest, or stay in Russia and seem a coward.

‘It is not enough’

In his piece, Mr Brown describes August as a “crisis point” for the Russian President, and highlights a petition calling for South Africa to arrest him, which has been signed by more than half a million people. He says the world is “closer than ever” to delivering justice.

“The campaign to arrest Putin comes at a significant moment in the war, with Ukrainian troops about to move onto the front foot with a spring offensive designed to retake control of the bridgehead to Crimea,” he writes.

“Run an ‘arrest Putin’ campaign alongside this military counterattack piles additional pressure on the leader and his cabal, who now know they are persona non grata in most continents of the world and liable to be arrested if they travel outside Russia.

“As the Ukrainian Nobel peace laureate Oleksandra Matviichuk has argued, it could make Putin’s generals think twice about following future orders to commit war crimes.”

However, in his view, the current ICC arrest warrant doesn’t go far enough. Mr Brown wants a “special tribunal” to be formed, similar to the court that tried Nazi war criminals, so Putin can be charged with his “foundational crime” – the invasion itself.

Last week the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, renewed her own calls for such a “dedicated tribunal to bring Russia’s crime of aggression to trial”.

While Russia would inevitably veto the creation of a tribunal on the United Nations’ Security Council, Mr Brown points out that its resistance could be overcome by a majority vote of the General Assembly.

He says that will require a greater commitment from, most of all, the United States.

“The next stage of the campaign to put Putin behind bars will require upfront American engagement. Joe Biden has said he favours Putin’s arrest, but the US still shies away from bringing a special tribunal into being,” Mr Brown says.

“We have to remind them that it is not enough to will the ends: we have to will the means.”

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