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South Africa grants Putin immunity despite international arrest warrant

South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa and Russia's President Vladimir Putin arriving at a BRICS even in Brazil. 14 November 2019
South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa and Russia's President Vladimir Putin arriving at a BRICS even in Brazil. 14 November 2019 Copyright Eraldo Peres/Copyright 2018 The AP. All rights reserved
Copyright Eraldo Peres/Copyright 2018 The AP. All rights reserved
By Una Hajdari
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Russia's president was granted diplomatic immunity to attend a BRICS summit in August, despite being wanted for his involvement in alleged war crimes in Ukraine.

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Confusion surrounding Vladimir Putin's visit to South Africa for a BRICS Summit, which brings together the world's major southern economies, seems to have been resolved.

In a statement published in the South African official gazette, Minister for International Relations Naledi Pandor announced he had approved diplomatic immunity for all participants at the event. 

According to the Department of International Relations, conferring immunity is standard practice for all international conferences and summits held in South Africa, regardless of participation levels.

They claim immunities apply to the conference and not to specific individuals.

“These immunities do not override any warrant that may have been issued by any international tribunal against any attendee at the conference,” said the department.

Eraldo Peres/Copyright 2019 The AP. All rights reserved
South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa, Indian PM Narendra Modi, China's President Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Brazil's former president Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, 14 November 2019Eraldo Peres/Copyright 2019 The AP. All rights reserved

In politics and diplomacy, immunity means being exempt from the laws of a foreign jurisdiction or from prosecution abroad.

Despite being a member of the ICC and subject to its treaties, Putin would not face arrest during his stay in South Africa.

Several solutions were considered for accommodating Putin's visit during this crucial event, with South Africa's ruling party seeking to chart its own path geopolitically and ward off Western influence.

Besides economic representatives, the BRICS summit will bring together the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa -- all countries that have opposed the united Western front against the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine.

An arrest warrant for Putin was issued in March by the International Criminal Court (ICC), putting South Africa in an unfavourable position with its trade partners in the West.

It is expected that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will attend the BRICS meeting this week in Cape Town and Pretoria will again discuss Putin's visit.

Lavrov rejected a proposal made by his South African counterpart for Putin to virtually attend the leadership summit scheduled for August.

Russia's state-owned TASS news agency reported Moscow had no intention of reneging on its plans to participate in the summit, and that it fully expects Pretoria to deal with issues involving the ICC.

In April, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the ruling African National Congress or ANC party would be withdrawing from the ICC due to the “court’s partiality in relation to certain situations”.

However, his office then walked back the statement and claimed it was “an error in comment”.

“South Africa remains a signatory to the ICC in line with a resolution of the 55th National Conference of the ANC – held in December 2022 – to rescind an earlier decision to withdraw from the ICC.”

In the past, Pretoria failed to act on its commitment to the ICC when Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir evaded arrest in the country during Jacob Zuma's presidency. 

The ICC had a standing warrant of arrest against Al Bashir.

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South Africa's relationship with the US, a key trade partner, has been strained since Pretoria took what it calls a "non-aligned stance" during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The situation has been exacerbated by recent public statements by US Ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety, claiming South Africa sold arms to Russia.

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