South Africa will 'do the right thing' on Putin arrest warrant, ICC prosecutor tells MPs

·3 min read
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting in Moscow on March 25, 2023. (Gavriil Grigorov/Sputnik/The Associated Press - image credit)
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting in Moscow on March 25, 2023. (Gavriil Grigorov/Sputnik/The Associated Press - image credit)

South Africa will have the opportunity this summer to enforce the International Criminal Court's arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin — and the court's top prosecutor told MPs on Thursday he's confident the Commonwealth country "will do the right thing."

Karim Khan appeared before the Canadian House of Commons foreign affairs committee a few hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke to ICC judges at The Hague in the Netherlands, where he said he was confident Putin would be convicted of war crimes.

Zelenskyy urged the global community to hold Putin accountable and told the ICC judges that Russia's leader "deserves to be sentenced for (his) criminal actions right here in the capital of the international law."

In March, the ICC issued a war crimes arrest warrant for Putin and accused him of personal responsibility for the abduction of children from Ukraine. It was the first time the global court had circulated a warrant for a leader of one of the five permanent UN Security Council members.

In August, Putin is slated to attend the so-called BRICS Summit, an assembly of countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) considered to be the foremost geopolitical rival to the G7 bloc of leading advanced economies.

As a signatory to the ICC's Rome Statute, South Africa is expected to enforce the war crimes warrant and arrest Putin. That has triggered an intense political debate in the country. Ronald Lamola, South Africa's justice minister, complained publicly on Wednesday that the ICC has been inconsistent in deciding which crimes merit attention.

Marwan Ali/The Associated Press
Marwan Ali/The Associated Press

Khan told a four-party committee of Canadian MPs on Thursday that South Africa is a respected state and "hasn't been dragged kicking and screaming" to support the ICC in the past.

"There have been statements more recently in relation to the acknowledgement by South Africa about its obligations under the Rome Statute," Khan said. "They have gone on record as saying that they are aware of those responsibilities. I don't think they need any tutelage from me."

Khan said he was reluctant to press the matter in public, adding a country that fought successfully to end the racist system of apartheid has a right to make its own decisions.

"I think they are quite aware of their responsibilities and I have confidence that they will do the right thing, and I think I will leave it at that," said Khan.

But Lamola suggested in his remarks to local media in South Africa that his government is searching for an exit.

"We will explore various options with regard to how the Rome Statute was domesticated in our country, including the option to look at extending customary diplomatic immunity to visiting heads of state in our country," Lamola told the publication BusinessDay.

The ICC has set up an office in Kyiv and is working closely with Ukrainian prosecutors to document war crime cases, which number in the tens of thousands, said Yuliya Kovaliv, Ukraine's ambassador to Canada.

Olivier Matthys/Associated Press
Olivier Matthys/Associated Press

More than 84,000 war crimes are being investigated, Kovaliv told the Senate's foreign affairs committee on Thursday. The arrest warrant for Putin and Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, Russia's commissioner for children's rights, relates to the forced relocation of children from occupied Ukrainian territories to Russia, where they are being assimilated.

Ukraine estimates more than 19,500 Ukrainian children were illegally abducted and deported to Russia, and of those only 328 have returned.

"According to the evidence, they were forced to learn [the] Russian language, which revised history, and also many of them were filmed for Russian propaganda campaigns," Kovaliv told the senate committee.

It's not just a Ukrainian concern, she said.

"Justice for these crimes is not only necessary for the families who lost their loved ones, but justice will serve the critical interests of a global justice to prevent any other dictator from committing such crimes," Kovaliv added.