The International Criminal Court has reported that it has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes, accusing him of personal responsibility for the abductions of children from Ukraine.
According to reports, this is the first time the global court has issued a warrant against a leader of one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. The ICC said in a statement that Putin “is allegedly responsible for the war crime of unlawful deportation of (children) and that of unlawful transfer of (children) from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.”
ICC President Piotr Hofmanski said in a video statement that while the ICC’s judges have issued the warrants, it will be up to the international community to enforce them. The court has no police force of its own to do so.
The ICC said its pre-trial chamber found “reasonable grounds” that Putin “bears individual criminal responsibility” for the child abductions “for having committed the acts directly, jointly with others and/or through others” and for failing to “exercise control properly over civilian and military subordinates who committed the acts.”
If tried and found guilty, the ICC can impose a maximum sentence of life imprisonment “when justified by the extreme gravity of the crime,” according to its founding treaty, the Rome Statute, that established it as a permanent court of last resort to prosecute political leaders and other key perpetrators of the world’s worst atrocities — war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
The move was immediately dismissed by Moscow — and welcomed by Ukraine as a major breakthrough. Its practical implications, however, could be limited as the chances of Putin facing trial at the ICC are highly unlikely because Moscow does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction or extradite its nationals.
But the moral condemnation will likely stain the Russian leader for the rest of his life — and in the more immediate future, whenever he seeks to attend an international summit in a nation bound to arrest him.
Ukraine’s human rights chief, Dmytro Lubinets, has said that based on data from the country’s National Information Bureau, 16,226 children were deported. Ukraine has managed to bring back 308 children.
“So, Putin might go to China, Syria, Iran, his … few allies, but he just won’t travel to the rest of the world and won’t travel to ICC member states who he believes would … arrest him,” said Adil Ahmad Haque, an expert in international law and armed conflict at Rutgers University.
Others agreed. “Vladimir Putin will forever be marked as a pariah globally. He has lost all his political credibility around the world. Any world leader who stands by him will be shamed as well,” David Crane, a former international prosecutor, told The Associated Press.
The court also issued a warrant for the arrest of Maria Lvova-Belova, the commissioner for Children’s Rights in the Office of the President of the Russian Federation. The AP reported on her involvement in the abduction of Ukrainian orphans in October, in the first investigation to follow the process all the way to Russia, relying on dozens of interviews and documents.
Still, the chances of Putin or Lvova-Belova facing trial remain extremely remote, as Moscow does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction — a position it vehemently reaffirmed last week. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia doesn’t recognize the ICC and considers its decisions “legally void.” He called the court’s move “outrageous and unacceptable.” Peskov refused to comment when asked if Putin would avoid making trips to countries where he could be arrested on the ICC’s warrant.
Lvova-Belova, who was also implicated in the warrants, reacted with dripping sarcasm. “It is great that the international community has appreciated the work to help the children of our country, that we do not leave them in war zones, that we take them out, we create good conditions for them, that we surround them with loving, caring people,” she said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called it a “historic decision, from which historic responsibility will begin.” Sergiy Kyslytsya, Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador, recalled that on the night of Russia’s invasion, “I said at the Security Council meeting that there is no purgatory for war criminals, they go straight to hell. Today, I would like to say that those of them who will remain alive after the military defeat of Russia will have to make a stop in The Hague on their way to hell.”
In Washington, President Joe Biden called the ICC’s decision “justified,” and that Putin “clearly committed war crimes.” While the US does not recognize the court either, Biden said it “makes a very strong point” to call out the Russian leader’s actions in ordering the invasion.
While Ukraine is also not a member of the global court, it has granted it jurisdiction over its territory and ICC prosecutor Karim Khan has visited four times since opening an investigation a year ago. Besides Russia and Ukraine, the United States and China are not members of the 123-member ICC.
During a visit this month, ICC prosecutor Khan said he went to a care home for children 2 kilometers (just over a mile) from front lines in southern Ukraine. “The drawings pinned on the wall … spoke to a context of love and support that was once there,” he said in a statement. “But this home was empty, a result of alleged deportation of children from Ukraine to the Russian Federation or their unlawful transfer to other parts of the temporarily occupied territories. As I noted to the United Nations Security Council last September, these alleged acts are being investigated by my office as a priority. Children cannot be treated as the spoils of war,” Khan said.
And while Russia rejected the allegations and warrants, others said the ICC action will have an important impact. “The ICC has made Putin a wanted man and taken its first step to end the impunity that has emboldened perpetrators in Russia’s war against Ukraine for far too long,” said Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “The warrants send a clear message that giving orders to commit, or tolerating, serious crimes against civilians may lead to a prison cell in The Hague.”
Crane, who indicted Liberian President Charles Taylor 20 years ago for crimes in Sierra Leone, said dictators and tyrants around the world “are now on notice that those who commit international crimes will be held accountable.” Taylor was eventually detained and put on trial at a special court in the Netherlands. He was convicted and sentenced to 50 years’ imprisonment.
On Thursday, a U.N.-backed inquiry cited Russian attacks against civilians in Ukraine, including systematic torture and killing in occupied regions, among potential issues that amount to war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity. The sweeping investigation also found crimes committed against Ukrainians on Russian territory, including deported Ukrainian children who were prevented from reuniting with their families, a “filtration” system aimed at singling out Ukrainians for detention, and torture and inhumane detention conditions.
Although the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague has issued a warrant for President Vladimir Putin’s arrest, it is no more than the first step in a very long process. The United Nations clearly believes there is sufficient evidence to accuse the Russian leader of war crimes in Ukraine.
The court was established in 2002 by a treaty known as the Rome Statute. This statute lays down that it is the duty of every state to exercise its own criminal jurisdiction over those responsible for international crimes. The ICC can only intervene where a state is unable or unwilling to carry out the investigation and prosecute perpetrators. In all, 123 states have agreed to abide by it, but there are some significant exceptions, including Russia.
The idea of trying people for crimes against humanity pre-dates the existence of the ICC. It began in 1945 after World War Two with the Nuremberg Trials, which were held to punish key members of the hierarchy in Nazi Germany for the Holocaust and other atrocities.
Those included Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess, who was sentenced to life imprisonment and died by his own hand in 1987. Putin has not actually been charged with crimes against humanity, even though US Vice-President Kamala Harris has argued that he should be.
The arrest warrant is being seen as a signal from the international community that what is taking place in Ukraine is against international law. The court says the reason it is going public with these warrants is that these crimes are continuing. In doing so, it is trying to deter further crimes taking place.