As Brazil takes G20 presidency, Lula questions value of an ICC that does not include US, Russia, China

He also walked a fine line on Putin’s theoretical arrest at next summit

lula-brazil-ap Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva | AP

In a press conference speech at the end of the G20 summit in New Delhi, Brazil's president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva threaded a diplomatic needle on whether Russia’s Vladimir Putin could face arrest if he were to attend the G20 summit he'll organize Brazil next year. This is a sensitive issue because there is an International Criminal Court warrant against Putin for war crimes in Ukraine. 

As a signatory to the ICC, Brazil theoretically must comply with warrants. But Lula claimed any decision would be up to Brazilian courts, not his government. "If I’m president and [Putin] comes to Brazil, there’s no reason for him to be arrested," Lula remarked Saturday.

But, he went further. Saying he was not withdrawing from the ICC, he questioned its value if the major powers do not submit themselves to its jurisdiction. H said it was proper to look into it.

Lula singled out the US, Russia, China, and India for not being members of the Hague-based ICC and questioned why Brazil, the world's 5th largest country, 7th by population, and with the 9th largest economy, had to be a part of it.

The ICC has jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for international crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. Other countries that are not members include, Indonesia, Israel, Iraq, Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Turkey, and Yemen.

Unlike the International Court of Justice, the ICC can prosecute individuals, and that is a reason why some big global players like the United States, China, and Russia are not part of its treaty.

Lula's stance underscores his delicate balancing act between Western powers and Russia. While criticizing the Ukraine invasion, Lula also blasted the West for "encouraging war" by arming Kyiv. The Brazilian president praised language calling for a diplomatic solution in Ukraine as an "important step." But, he questioned why major powers like the U.S., China and Russia haven’t joined the ICC, vowing to still invite Putin to the 2024 G20 summit in Brazil.

But Russia's president skipped recent summits, instead sending subordinates, thus avoiding a possible attempt to arrest him. If Putin were to attend, letting Brazilian courts decide on enforcing the warrant could allow Lula to avoid a lose-lose political bind.

Brazil opposing Putin’s arrest would alienate the West. But, detaining the Russian leader would provoke Kremlin retaliation, potentially jeopardizing food, fertilizer, and energy ties important for Brazil's economy and food security.

By deferring to Brazil’s judiciary, Lula creates space to urge diplomacy while leaving arrest as a remote possibility. Ultimately, Lula’s poker face on Putin reflects his high-wire act straddling competing interests as he seeks to expand Brazilian influence.

Lula laid out ambitious goals for reforming global governance during Brazil's 2024 presidency of the G20 group for which he took symbolic leadership, receiving the gavel from India's Premier Narendra Modi. The leftist Latin American leader touted Brazil's strengths but acknowledged challenges in transforming institutions.

In speeches during the conference, Lula criticised the lack of unity between countries in tackling inequality, arguing "the world has unlearned how to be indignant and normalized the unacceptable."

"Despite all our efforts, our family is increasingly disunited. What divides us has a name: it is inequality, and it continues to grow," said Lula, noting the income gap between richest and poorest has doubled in two centuries. "The richest 10% own 76% of the planet's wealth, while the poorest 50 percent own just 2 percent."

Brazil is ready to host the gathering in Rio de Janeiro, said Lula, calling it an opportunity to amplify diverse voices. "We want to use Brazilian cities to hold as many G20 events as possible, to try to make it a more popular G20," he said.

"Brazil has a lot to teach other countries," contended Lula, citing ethanol production and plans for a Global Biofuels Alliance while asserting that Brazil offers an example for clean energy transitions, given its extensive renewable power.

But he acknowledged difficulties in reforming institutions like the IMF, World Bank, and Security Council to give developing nations more sway. While promising to discuss diluting permanent members’ UN power, he acknowledged progress may prove elusive.

"It is necessary to put the poor in the public budget and make the richest pay taxes proportional to their wealth," said Lula, noting however, that achieving concrete action on these sweeping proposals could prove challenging.

With Brazil chairing the G20 and leading a BRICS resurgence, Lula is intent on being a voice for the Global South. Yet his ambitious vision downplays just how entrenched global power dynamics are.

Lula championed the addition of the African Union into the bloc, but achieving concrete gains for poorer nations while delivering for Brazil will test Lula’s diplomatic skills and considerable negotiating talent.

Balanced with pragmatism, the G20 offers a platform to enhance Brazil's leadership credentials. But Lula's call to completely transform global governance may remain mostly aspirational.


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