Updated Apr 25, 2023, 11:34am EDT

South Africa wants to pull out of ICC, president says ahead of Putin visit

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa walks with Finland's President Sauli Niinisto during the welcoming ceremony for the official state visit at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa, April 25, 2023 REUTERS/Ihsaan Haffejee
REUTERS/Ihsaan Haffejee

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The News

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said he wants to take his country out of the International Criminal Court, weeks after the court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“The governing party... has taken that decision that it is prudent that South Africa should pull out of the ICC,” Ramaphosa said Tuesday.

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Know More

South Africa’s relationship with Russia has been a pressure point in recent months. Rather than shunning Putin in the wake of the country’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Ramaphosa and his government have instead maintained normal ties with Russia.

On Monday, Moscow said it was still considering whether Putin would attend the multi-lateral meeting of the BRICS group of nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), which is due to be held in South Africa in August. Since South Africa is party to the Rome Statute and a member of the ICC, the country would be obligated to arrest Putin if he touched down in the country.

“While we are friends with many all over the world we cannot become sudden enemies at the demand of others,” South African International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor said last month.

In February, South Africa hosted China and Russia for joint military operations off its coast.

Ramaphosa's comments on Tuesday came during a joint press conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, who is currently in South Africa on a state visit.

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Alexis's view

The proposed withdrawal of South Africa from the ICC highlights the tricky balancing act the country is trying to pull off.

South Africa has steadfastly refused to align itself with condemnation of Russia over its war in Ukraine, while not wanting to be seen as fully endorsing Moscow’s invasion. But Ramaphosa appears to feel more is to be gained from maintaining a good relationship with Russia, a fellow BRICS member, than would be lost by leaving the ICC.

Strong ties with Russia, and the loyalty shown in pushing to withdraw from the ICC, creates opportunities for trade deals with Moscow. As Ramaphosa contends with a sluggish economy, only a year from a general election in which his ruling African National Congress could be forced into a coalition to retain power, he appears to have made the calculation that keeping the Kremlin happy makes the most sense. Ramaphosa risks upsetting the West, but can work on building powerful non-Western alliances with other BRICS nations.

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Step Back

This is not the first time the South African government has floated the idea of withdrawing from the ICC. In 2016, the government announced its intentions to withdraw its membership, saying at the time that the multi-governmental body was seeking a regime change.

The country later backtracked following an ICC ruling that found the move unconstitutional.

South Africa, like 138 other countries, is party to the Rome Statute, a 1998 treaty which established the ICC. Countries party to the agreement are obligated to cooperate with the court’s investigations.


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