Non-Military Security

International arrest warrant for Putin: is justice for Ukraine one step closer or still miles away?

Jerguš Lajoš

On 17 March, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague issued an official arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The court initiated prosecutions for committing war crimes, including attacks on civilian infrastructure and the abduction of Ukrainian children from occupied areas to Russia, in the period since Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022.

According to Chief Prosecutor Karmi Khan: “At least hundreds of children were illegally deported from orphanages and care institutions in Ukraine. Many of these children were given up for adoption in Russia. The adoption by Russian families was to be facilitated by a change in the law expediting the granting of citizenship established by presidential decrees.” In addition, Khan noted that the Ukrainian children had protected status at the time under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

The representatives of the court in The Hague have reasonable grounds to believe that the Russian President acted directly or collaborated or authorized others to act, or was unable to properly control his subordinates who committed these acts.

Moscow also briefly commented on the issuance of the arrest warrant. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the ICC is irrelevant as Russia is no longer a signatory to the Rome Statute as the founding treaty for the ICC. Putin originally signed the statute in 2000 but never ratified it. In 2016, he withdrew from the accession process altogether. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also commented on the facts, calling The Hague’s actions pointless and unacceptable. He also added that all the tribunal’s decisions regarding Russia were null and void.

Russian ex-president Dmitry Medvedev also commented on the matter on his Twitter account, expressing his personal dissatisfaction and clearly questioning the arrest warrant. On Monday, 20 March, Medvedev commented on the matter again, threatening in a Telegram status a possible missile attack on the Dutch court.

On the same day, Russian officials announced the launch of a criminal investigation of the Chief Prosecutor and ICC judges. Karim Khan and three other judges were alleged to have committed an offence against Russian law by knowingly accusing an innocent person. On the part of the judges, it should have been a conscious illegal detention and “preparation for an attack on a representative of a foreign state enjoying international protection, with the aim of complicating international relations.” With this move, the Kremlin sought to discredit the international tribunal and distract attention from the ICC’s allegations.

However, in practice, the arrest warrant issued has almost no effect on Putin at the moment. As long as the Russian president stays on the territory of the Russian Federation or in one of the 42 countries that are also not members of the ICC, he is “untouchable” from the point of view of international law. Indeed, the Court in The Hague does not have the power to arrest sitting heads of state, nor can it bring them to a trial of its own. Moreover, it is a rule of the International Criminal Court that a trial cannot be commenced without the presence of the defendant, as is the case in ordinary hearings. Therefore, the ICC has no choice but to rely on the vigilance and willingness of the leaders of the 123 member countries to unconditionally detain accused persons who will be present in their territory. All member countries are bound to execute on their territory the arrest of a person for whom the ICC has issued an arrest warrant. However, the chances that Putin himself would arbitrarily put himself at risk of arrest by visiting any of the member countries are zero. Moreover, the sanctions imposed on Moscow have considerably reduced the possibilities of where Putin could travel. Perhaps the only hope for a fair trial in this case remains the possibility that Chief Prosecutor Khan might decide to act in the same way as he did in the case of the defendant Joseph Kony, when he made a request for a trial to be held without the defendant being present. However, the court’s decision in this case is still pending.

There have also been statements on the matter from occupied Ukraine, which is not a state party to the Rome Statute but has twice exercised its powers to accept the jurisdiction of the court over alleged crimes on its territory. From Kyiv, there has been praise for the decisive action of the Dutch court. President Zelensky declared that it was “a historic decision from which historical responsibility will begin.” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba spoke of “the wheels of justice turning” and hopes that the defendants would be held accountable for their war crimes. But not everyone in the country views the decision from The Hague as positively as its top officials. Scepticism is palpable among the general population. Many of them do not believe that the ICC will be able to achieve a fair verdict in these circumstances. Their faith in justice being done could soon be strengthened by the opening of an ICC prosecutor’s office in Ukraine, which has already been approved by both sides.

A very positive assessment of these facts has also come from across the Atlantic. President Biden called the issuing of the arrest warrants a clearly justified step that will help in the fight against Russian aggression. He also added that, although the court has no power in his country, the issuing of the arrest warrants is a “very strong point”. Statements of this type about the ICC from the US may seem surprising, as Washington has long held a negative attitude towards the tribunal.

Photo credit: @rcphotostock (Canva.com)

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