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South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, pictured during his state of the nation address in Cape Town on February 16, recently said it’s 'prudent' that South Africa pull out of the ICC after the court issued an arrest warrant for Russia's Vladimir Putin. He later clarified to say such an action would be a 'last resort'.ESA ALEXANDER/Reuters

South Africa’s ruling party, facing a thorny dilemma over an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin that looms over a planned summit this year, has revived an earlier threat to withdraw from the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Tuesday that the ruling African National Congress had decided “it’s prudent that South Africa should pull out of the ICC.” He said the withdrawal would allow a proper discussion of the “unfair treatment” of various countries by the international court.

The ANC’s secretary-general, Fikile Mbalula, confirmed in a separate media briefing that the party had decided that South Africa should withdraw. But later, in a late-night statement under a “clarification” banner, the ANC said the pullout from the court was not a “categorical decision” but only a “measure of last resort.” And then, close to midnight, Mr. Ramaphosa’s office issued another statement, saying his earlier comments were “erroneous” but reiterating that the ANC still saw a potential withdrawal from the court as a “last resort” option.

It’s the second time since 2016 that South Africa – once a strong supporter of the ICC – has threatened to withdraw from the court. It had abandoned the previous threat only a few weeks ago, resolving to remain a member of the court. But then the ICC issued its arrest warrant for Mr. Putin, casting a shadow over his planned visit to South Africa in August and triggering a new surge of interest from the ANC, where many officials have close links to Russia.

The ICC issued the arrest warrant on March 17, alleging that Mr. Putin was responsible for the war crime of abducting Ukrainian children and deporting them to Russia.

South Africa and Russia are both members of BRICS, the five-country group that has emerged as a potential rival to the West. The other members are Brazil, India and China. The bloc is scheduled to hold its annual summit in Johannesburg in August, with all leaders attending in person, and an ambitious expansion plan is on the agenda.

The ANC government cherishes its role in BRICS, seeing it as a ticket to global influence and economic clout. The ANC also has historical links to Moscow that date back to the anti-apartheid movement. It does not want to jeopardize the August summit, but under the ICC treaty it is obliged to enforce the arrest warrant if Mr. Putin arrives on South African territory, leaving the government in a difficult quandary.

In the mid-1990s, when Nelson Mandela was South Africa’s first democratic president, South Africa worked with other ICC supporters, including Canada, to push for the creation of the court and to encourage other countries to become members. Richard Goldstone, a former judge, said he recalls participating in those meetings, at the request of Mr. Mandela, and persuading other Southern African countries to join the court. The meetings were “highly successful,” he wrote in a recent commentary.

But later, when several African political leaders were subjected to ICC prosecutions, many African politicians turned against the court. In 2015, when then-president Omar al-Bashir of Sudan attended an African Union summit in Johannesburg, the South African government refused to enforce an ICC arrest warrant against him for genocide and other war crimes. He was allowed to leave the country freely, despite a South African court ruling that he must be arrested on the ICC warrant. The government “unlawfully embarrassed our country,” Mr. Goldstone said.

South Africa’s then-president, Jacob Zuma, sent a formal notification to the ICC in 2016, saying that the country would withdraw from the international court. But a court ruled that this was invalid without parliamentary approval. His government then introduced a law in parliament to authorize a withdrawal, but it was never pushed forward for final approval, and the ANC passed a resolution in December saying that the withdrawal should be rescinded.

The law was finally withdrawn in March – just days before the ICC arrest warrant was issued. But the warrant revived the issue, because the ANC government has become increasingly close to Mr. Putin in recent months. The government has hosted friendly visits from top Russian ministers and even allowed a Russian warship to join a naval exercise and to visit South African ports while displaying the “Z” symbol of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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