Vladimir Putin can safely head to Hungary, South Africa’s a maybe, but much of the rest of the world may be out: An arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court is threatening to not just shrink the Russian leader’s world, but also divide everyone else’s, undermining efforts to isolate the Kremlin over its actions in Ukraine.
This week, two of the countries who remain relatively friendly with the Kremlin were the first to signal a split over a crucial question facing countries around the globe: Would you arrest Putin if he set foot on your soil?
On the day that Ukraine signed an agreement to establish an ICC office in the country, allowing the international body to more closely investigate allegations of war crimes that Russia has consistently denied, the two countries — both members of the court — indicated they may not comply with the arrest warrant.
Though both Hungary and South Africa are signatories to the Rome Statute, which established the court in 1998, neither country could commit in recent days to executing the arrest warrant if Putin crossed their borders. Their public reticence comes after Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged all members of the court to fulfill their obligations — and after Moscow warned that doing so would amount to a declaration of war.
Gergely Gulyás, who serves as Hungarian President Viktor Orbán’s chief of staff, claimed that Budapest had not worked the international court into its legal system. While Hungary “had not formed a stance” on the arrest warrant, he believed it moved “things toward further escalation and not toward peace.”
“We can refer to the Hungarian law and, based on that, we cannot arrest the Russian president,” he said, according to Reuters, “as the ICC’s statute has not been promulgated in Hungary.”
South Africa, meanwhile, said it was aware of its legal obligation to the ICC, but its leaders said it still planned to invite Putin to Johannesburg for an August summit of leaders of major developing countries — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, known collectively as “BRICS.” South Africa, which has remained neutral about Russia’s invasion and held military exercises with Moscow, said it would continue to consult with stakeholders. On Friday a government minister said the country was awaiting a new legal opinion on the subject.
“We are awaiting a refreshed legal opinion on the matter and we continue to be a member-state of the Rome Treaty,” Naledi Pandor, minister of international relations and cooperation, told South African Broadcasting Corp. on Friday. “We are concerned about the situation of the people of Ukraine. What we would want to do is be in a position where we could continue to engage with both countries to persuade them towards peace.”
The foreign ministries of Hungary and South Africa did not respond to requests for comment.
NBC News also contacted the 17 countries that are signatories of the Rome Statute and did not vote to condemn Russia in the UN General Assembly last month. None responded, potentially signaling Putin could also be safe to visit countries like Bangladesh, Bolivia, El Salvador.
The ICC, which is based in The Hague, Netherlands, accused Putin last week of overseeing the alleged war crime of the unlawful abduction and deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia. It issued an arrest warrant for him, which should make him persona non grata in all 123 countries that signed the Rome Statute.
The announcement will carry little more than symbolic weight, however, unless countries promise to fulfill their legal obligation.
The court does not have a police force and thus has no capability to act on an arrest warrant that it issues. Instead, for it to function, it relies on those 123 countries to cooperate and use their own law enforcement bodies to detain suspects if they cross their borders.
The ICC, however, remains firm about the treaty. “States parties have the legal obligation to cooperate with the Court within the framework of part 9 of the Rome Statute,” Fadi El Abdallah, a spokesperson for the court, said via email.
Hungary and South Africa add to a long history of the court’s struggles to get nations to fulfill that “legal obligation.”
South Africa did not arrest former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who faced an ICC arrest warrant for alleged genocide and war crimes committed in the Darfur conflict, when he attended an African Union summit in Johannesburg in June 2015.Former South African President Jacob Zuma and his government were reprimanded by local courts for not complying with the ICC.
There have been a handful of similar instances throughout history, involving figures ranging from a militia leader in the Democratic Republic of Congo to former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who withdrew his country from the court in 2018 when its prosecutor announced it would investigate his “war on drugs” campaign that is suspected of killing tens of thousands of people.
Duterte promised “I will never go to the ICC alive.”
The problem is that the ICC has no real power to require countries to fulfill their responsibilities as party states, said Victor Peskin, a professor in the school of politics and global studies at Arizona State University and a human rights researcher. The court can find a state noncompliant, but it’s not much more than “a symbolic reprimand,” he told NBC News.
“When you have states that are legally obligated to help with that enforcement and they refuse to do so or promise to refuse to do so, then the ICC is really bereft of meaningful tools to hold that state accountable for not complying,” he said.
The United States does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction, but it has sought to publicly throw its weight behind the warrant. Russian leaders, though, have dismissed and mocked the war crimes charges.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov immediately rejected the court’s warrant last Friday. “We do not recognize this court, we do not recognize the jurisdiction of this court. This is how we treat this,” he said.
Since then, Russia has claimed ICC prosecutor Karim Ahmad Khan and the court’s judges had broken the country’s laws and opened criminal cases against them.
Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev also made clear Thursday that if any countries acted on the arrest warrant, it would effectively be “a declaration of war against the Russian Federation,” which he emphasized was a nuclear state.