Africans should help bring Putin to the ICC
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 f o r 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.—Al Jazeera