By Imraan Buccus
Now that the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin, there is going to be a frenzy of condemnation of the South African government as we get closer to the Brics meeting to be held here in August.
The large chunk of our commentariat and media, along with parts of the academy, that sees itself as part of the West, and is largely uncritical of the West, will be apoplectic. This is the same grouping that is enraged by white suffering resulting from the war in Ukraine and silent on Black suffering resulting from the wars in Ethiopia and Yemen. They are enraged by the South African state undertaking military exercises with Russia and China but silent, or even excited, when our state does the same with the US military. They see China as a threat to world security and the US as a guarantor of that security when it is the US that has invaded and bombed vastly more countries than any other state in the world. They obsess about Russian ‘disinformation’ but never use this term to describe American propaganda, such as the lies about ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in Iraq, or the evident spin around the destruction of the Nord Stream Pipeline.
All powerful states run intelligence operations to shape global opinion. The Russians do it, the Chinese do it, and so do the US and the European powers. They all engage in ‘disinformation’. Some years back Edward Snowden leaked a training manual developed by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), a UK intelligence agency. The whole manual, which can now be viewed on the website of the American Civil Liberties Union, is a guide to generating effective online disinformation. But despite this, there are no South African academics working on ‘UK disinformation’.
There are a number of analysts who, looking at both these extraordinary double standards and the history of colonialism and neo-colonialism, argue that we should be siding with Russia and China against the West. This is not my view. My view is that South Africa should remain non-aligned and seek to build, as Thabo Mbeki did, an independent African presence in world affairs.
When it comes to understanding global issues, we should assess each state and its actions on the basis of a rigorous examination of the evidence rather than simply following behind the West, or any other global power, like sheep.
If we take an independent and fact-based look at the ICC and its arrest warrant for Putin a few things are immediately obvious.
One is that the state responsible for the most war crimes in the world since the end of the Second World War, the United States, does not recognise the jurisdiction of the ICC. This means that US war criminals, such as George Bush, cannot be brought before the court. This is a huge problem for the legitimacy of the court and raises real questions as to whether other states should continue to support the court. Israel, a US client state, has also refused to recognise the authority of the court. Benjamin Netanyahu would clearly have a case to answer if the court was universally recognised and treated all states equally.
India, China, and Indonesia also do not recognise the court. These are all powerful states and an international court that is not recognised by the two most powerful states in the world – China and the US – along with several other powerful states clearly has very limited power and legitimacy. The list of people that have been indicted by the court shows, clearly, that prior to the move against Putin, the court has been willing or able, or both, to target leaders from small, weak states. The move against Putin does mark a new departure for the court, but unless the leaders of powerful states like China, the United States and India, as well as US client states like Israel, could conceivably be prosecuted the court’s legitimacy rests on very shaky ground.
Then there is the matter of the court’s obvious biases. A long list of African presidents, all odious figures to be sure, have been brought before the court. Yet, Tony Blair, undeniably a war criminal, has not been brought before the court even though the UK does recognise its authority. For formerly colonised countries this makes the court look like a neo-colonial institution, arguably a racist institution. There is no good reason for an African country to support an international institution that is vigorous about prosecuting African leaders but cannot or will not do the same for Bush and Blair.
There is another problem that will arise when the South African state faces a growing crescendo of pressure to arrest Putin if he comes to South Africa for the Brics meetings. For one state to arrest the head of another state would be taken as an act of
war. South Africa, already in a rapidly economic and political crisis, and unable to even fix the potholes on its roads, could hardly manage an intense conflict with Russia. It’s simply not viable for our state to make a move against Russian sovereignty.
Moreover, while the pro-Western bloc in the commentariat, media and academia constantly speak as if South Africa’s non-aligned position on the Russian Ukraine war is support for Russia the fact is that the bulk of the Global South have taken the same position as South Africa. And that position is not, as is constantly stated or implied, support for Russia. It is non-alignment. Our state has cordial relations with the US, Russia, and China, and engages in military exercises with all three states. But if South Africa broke ranks and fully aligned itself with the West it would lose face and support across most of the Global South. It would then have to become a client state of the West, much like Rwanda.
Of course, the pro-Western bloc in our public discourse would like South Africa to be a Rwandan style client state of the West but this would mean an abandonment of the Pan-African and Global South commitments that have always animated liberation politics here. And it is not just the ANC and the other smaller nationalist parties that would oppose our becoming a US client state. Non-state actors such as the trade unions and the bulk of the black intellectuals would take the same view. Unless the DA wins an election – something that will not happen in the foreseeable future – there is zero chance of South Africa becoming a US client state.
The ICC is a failed project because it has not been able to bring a critical mass of powerful states under its ambit, because it is not willing to move against Western or pro-Western leaders and because it tends to focus on crimes committed by leaders of weak states with a particular bias towards acting against African politicians.
Putin does not have nearly as much blood on his hands as Bush and Blair, but he does have blood on his hands and he must account for his actions in Ukraine, as well as Chechnya. On this there should be no equivocation. However, this cannot be undertaken by the ICC.
What South Africa should do is to lobby in the AU for all African countries to withdraw their sanction from the ICC and then work with all democratic governments in Africa, and across the Global South, to push for a genuinely multilateral and fair system of international justice managed by the United Nations. A system must be built that can see Putin, Bush, Blair, Netanyahu, and those responsible for the ongoing slaughter in Ethiopia and Yemen, all have their day in a credible world court. This would be a historic game changing breakthrough for humanity.
Dr Buccus is editor of Al-Qalam and director of a university study abroad program.