South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has warned that executing an International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin when the Russian leader attends the BRICS summit next month in Johannesburg would amount to a “declaration of war” against Moscow.
“Russia has made it clear that arresting its sitting president would be a declaration of war,” Ramaphosa said in a court filing released on Tuesday. “It would be inconsistent with our constitution to risk engaging in war with Russia.” He added that such a move would also fail his duty to protect South Africa.
As an ICC member, South Africa is required to abide by the court’s orders, including the March ruling to arrest Putin for alleged war crimes in Ukraine. However, the country also is the hosting member of this year’s BRICS summit, and it has sought to maintain good relations with Russia.
Ramaphosa has resisted US pressure to condemn Moscow over the conflict in Ukraine, maintaining neutrality on the issue, and has suggested that NATO’s eastward expansion helped trigger the crisis.
South Africa’s leading opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), demanded that the government arrest Putin and turn him over to the ICC if he sets foot in the country. Ramaphosa’s affidavit came in response to a legal challenge by the DA, which sought to force the president’s hand.
Pretoria is seeking an exemption from its obligation under the ICC warrant because arresting Putin could jeopardize the “security, peace and order of the state,” Ramaphosa said. His deputy, Paul Mashatile, has reportedly asked the Russian president not to attend the summit.
The ICC accused Putin and the Russian commissioner for children’s rights of “forcible transfer of the population” over the evacuation of minors from the combat zone in Ukraine. Russia is not a party to the Rome Statute that established the court, and the Kremlin has said that the ICC has no authority.
The Kremlin said on Friday that Putin hadn’t decided whether he would attend the meeting in person or participate remotely. Heads of state for other BRICS members, including China, Brazil and India, are expected to attend.