On July 19, South Africa announced that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not be attending the BRICS summit in Johannesburg in late August, ending speculation about whether South Africa would arrest him because of the warrant issued by the International Criminal Court. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will attend instead.
The ICC warrant accuses Putin of illegally deporting thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia. Russia, like the United States, is not a signatory to the ICC, whereas South Africa is, meaning it would have faced a huge dilemma. As South African President Thabo Mbeki put it, “we cannot” invite Putin to the summit and then arrest him, “but neither can we say ‘come to South Africa’ and not arrest him — because we’re defying our own law.”
BRICS is the acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, which first met as BRIC in 2009, adding South Africa in 2010. It is a loose coalition of relatively large and economically powerful countries undergoing rapid growth, emerging from the Global South into a position in which they aim to challenge the unrivaled domination of the world economy by the more powerful countries of the Global North. Of these countries, only Brazil and South Africa are signatories to the ICC, whereas Russia, China and India are not, meaning the possibility of Putin being arrested could have caused severe friction within the group — not to mention the dangerous global consequences that could ensue from arresting the head of a nuclear-armed superpower.
This spotlight on South Africa and BRICS raises the vexing question of “neutrality” as to the Russia-Ukraine war. While China, India and South Africa have abstained on U.N. votes to condemn Russia’s invasion, Brazil has formally voted to condemn it. But this vote was attacked by Brazil’s far-right then-President Jair Bolsonaro, who declared “solidarity” with Putin. Such “nonalignment” fits with the stance of ruling elites within the BRICS countries as they position themselves as challengers to the power of the Western states that have led the international defense of Ukraine.
Many commentators have attempted to explain this stance of the BRICS states — and the ambivalent stance of some other relatively powerful states — as representing the views of the entire Global South, the developing world of former colonies. Presuming to speak on behalf of several billion people on three continents, this rendition claims that support for Ukraine is a project solely of the imperial West, and even that “the majority of the world” abstained, because China and India make up two-fifths of the world’s population. [Continue reading…]