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The Met Police haven’t had a great week, but spare a thought for South African police chiefs. Later this year they may find themselves facing the trickiest diplomatic decision of modern times: whether to arrest Vladimir Putin if he turns up for the summit of Brics nations, planned for Durban in late August.
On the face of it, the decision should have been made for them: South Africa is one of 123 signatories to the International Criminal Court (ICC) which last week issued a warrant demanding that the Russian leader be arrested for war crimes if he should set foot in any of those member countries. But it is all too easy to imagine excuses being made, heels being dragged, the final order being given just as Putin’s jet lifts off on his homeward journey. Leader of the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters, Julius Malena, has already said that Putin would be “welcome” in South Africa, while President Cyril Ramaphosa has remained silent.
There is a precedent. In 2015, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir turned up in South Africa for a meeting of the African Union. He, like Putin now, was under an ICC arrest warrant. Yet the South African government issued immunity to all delegates attending. This was challenged in court, then appealed – and, guess what, by the time the courts had finished arguing the finer points, al-Bashir had caught his plane home.
It isn’t hard to see why South Africa might be reluctant to fulfil its duty to execute the ICC warrant. Anyone arresting a malignant dictator cannot expect to get away without retribution. South Africa citizens who happened to be in Russia at the time could not expect an easy journey home. Putin’s caretaker stand-in might be tempted to claim his arrest amounted to an act of war – although South Africa presents logistical difficulties for acts of military retribution.
But if the ICC is not to be reduced to an impotent irrelevance, the arrest would simply have to take place. You can’t have a war criminal allowed to swan in and out of an ICC member state with impunity. Were that to happen it would be better had the warrant not been issued in the first place.
For that reason, other ICC members must do all they can to support South Africa. There have been suggestions that South Africa might be punished by the West if it fails to fulfil its duty to arrest Putin. But far better, why not take the “I am Spartacus” approach and negotiate with South Africa that a delegation of 123 police officers from every single ICC country be sent to effect Putin’s arrest, then fly him to the Hague before Russia can protest?
Putin, of course, may yet decide that attending the Brics summit is not worth the risk: that his Black Sea mansion is really rather pleasant in August. Much as we would like to see him in the dock, this would, at least, make the ICC’s arrest warrant worthwhile. It would reaffirm that Putin henceforth will be restricted to Russia and other rogue countries around the world. But for the Russian president to make a laughing stock of the ICC would be the worst possible outcome. Member states must work out in the next five months exactly what they plan to do.