Putin Wanted by ICC Over Alleged War Crimes

The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and the country’s children’s rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, over allegations that Ukrainian children have been deported from occupied territories to Russia, which could constitute a potential war crime.

The existence of the warrants was made public in the interest of justice and in a bid to deter future crimes, ICC President Piotr Hofmanski said in an announcement on Friday, but the details of the allegations remain under seal to protect the victims. Although individual Russian soldiers have been found guilty of war crimes in Ukrainian courts, the warrants represent the first international charges to be brought against senior Russian officials since its invasion of Ukraine last February.

At least 6,000 Ukrainian children are thought to have been held in a vast system of camps and other facilities in Russian-occupied Crimea and within Russia itself, according to a report released last month by researchers at the Yale School of Public Health. Some have been singled out for reeducation to make them more pro-Russian, according to the report, while others have been put up for adoption or placed with foster families in Russia—in a move that the researchers concluded could constitute a potential war crime under the Geneva Conventions.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and the country’s children’s rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, over allegations that Ukrainian children have been deported from occupied territories to Russia, which could constitute a potential war crime.

The existence of the warrants was made public in the interest of justice and in a bid to deter future crimes, ICC President Piotr Hofmanski said in an announcement on Friday, but the details of the allegations remain under seal to protect the victims. Although individual Russian soldiers have been found guilty of war crimes in Ukrainian courts, the warrants represent the first international charges to be brought against senior Russian officials since its invasion of Ukraine last February.

At least 6,000 Ukrainian children are thought to have been held in a vast system of camps and other facilities in Russian-occupied Crimea and within Russia itself, according to a report released last month by researchers at the Yale School of Public Health. Some have been singled out for reeducation to make them more pro-Russian, according to the report, while others have been put up for adoption or placed with foster families in Russia—in a move that the researchers concluded could constitute a potential war crime under the Geneva Conventions.

Lvova-Belova, Russia’s children’s rights commissioner, claimed to have adopted a teenage boy from the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

“This is a strong signal to the whole world, not just a political statement but a legal statement, that Putin is a suspected war criminal and whoever decides to deal with him will know about this fact,” said Oleksandra Matviichuk, head of the Kyiv-based Center for Civil Liberties, which won the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize.

Russia does not recognize the authority of the international court. On Friday, Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, condemned the announcement as “outrageous” and “unacceptable.”

The warrants are likely to compound the Russian leader’s international isolation and could complicate his relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is set to travel to Moscow next week. “If they give him lethal weapons, which they were hinting at doing, then they’re aiding and abetting a war criminal,” said Harold Koh, an international law professor at Yale University.

“Anything that de-legitimates him isolates him. Anything that isolates him weakens him. Anything that weakens him hurts his bargaining power,” added Koh, who served as the U.S. State Department’s top legal advisor during the Obama administration.

U.S. officials have previously described the scale of atrocities carried out by Russian troops in Ukraine as a “Nuremberg moment” for the international community as the Ukrainian government has worked closely with its Western partners and international institutions to document and collect evidence of war crimes, which Ukrainian prosecutors believe already number in the tens of thousands.

Ukraine is not a party to the ICC but has given the court jurisdiction in its territory to carry out investigations into potential Russian war crimes carried out over the course of the yearlong war.

It’s unclear why the ICC sought to pursue charges of Russia’s alleged transfer of Ukrainian children first, but legal scholars underscored that international law offers more extensive protections to children. “Were looking at multiple violations, not just of the law of war but also of associated international human rights law,” said Diane Desierto, an international human rights law professor at the University of Notre Dame, who noted that one of the oldest war crimes is the illegal or forced deportation of civilian populations.

Koh added that it was more difficult for Putin to explain away his administration’s mass transfer of Ukrainian children to Russian territory. “It’s a very distinctive and completely heinous activity,” he said. Although Putin can attempt to rationalize the war, “stealing children is something that’s uniquely despicable and for which there appears to be no innocent explanation.”

Further charges against Putin or other senior Russian officials may still be forthcoming, said Kelebogile Zvobgo, an assistant professor of government at the College of William and Mary. “Just because this is the first does not mean it will be the last,” she said.

The ICC has previously ruled that senior officials and heads of state are not afforded immunity from prosecution while in office if charged with war crimes or crimes against humanity. But significant hurdles remain before Putin or Lvova-Belova are likely to see the inside of a courtroom as the ICC relies on national governments to enforce its arrest warrants and other edicts. (It does not have a police force of its own.)

For that to happen, Putin or Lvova-Belova would have to travel to one of the 123 countries that are party to the Rome Statute, which established the court, or a country that has accepted the court’s jurisdiction.

“There’s a big question mark there in terms of international cooperation, in terms of what country would be willing and able to do that,” Zvobgo said.

Senior Western diplomats say accountability for Russian crimes goes beyond the ICC. “This International Criminal Court issue is just the start in the process of accountability and holding Russia and its leader to account,” Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top foreign-policy envoy, said in a press conference during a visit to North Macedonia on Friday.

One immediate ramification of Friday’s announcement is that the Russian leader may seek to limit his travel to countries that are not parties to the Rome Statute, Zvobgo said.

Putin is not the first head of state to be subject to an arrest warrant by the court. Both Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi were subject to arrest warrants over alleged crimes against humanity while in office. In 2014, then-Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta became the first head of state to appear before the court over his alleged involvement in post-election violence in the country, but the case collapsed later that year.

Beyond the practical ramifications of an ICC arrest warrant, Friday’s announcement serves as a powerful international recognition of atrocities carried out by Russian forces in Ukraine. War crimes tribunals have historically served an important role in delivering justice and accountability but only after a conflict is over.

Speaking to Foreign Policy at the Munich Security Conference last month, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas underscored the important role played by the Nuremberg trials in exposing crimes committed by Nazi Germany. “There was never a Moscow tribunal for the crimes they had committed in countries like mine or Poland or Ukraine,” Kallas said.

“In order to cut that cycle, there has to be accountability and wider knowledge also for the Russian nation [about] what they have done,” she added.

Additional reporting was conducted by FPs Robbie Gramer.

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