NEW YORK - The International Criminal Court (ICC) on Friday issued an arrest warrant for war crimes for Russian President Vladimir Putin and a second Russian official. Here is a closer look at the court, the warrant and what it could mean for Russia’s leader.
Why did the ICC issue the warrants?
The court says Mr Putin bears individual criminal responsibility for the abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children since Russia’s full-scale invasion began in February 2022. It also issued a warrant for Ms Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights, who has been the public face of a Kremlin-sponsored programme in which Ukrainian children and teenagers have been taken to Russia.
The court said in a statement “there are reasonable grounds to believe that each suspect bears responsibility for the war crime of unlawful deportation of population and that of unlawful transfer of population from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation”.
A New York Times investigation published in October identified several Ukrainian children who had been taken away under Russia’s systematic resettlement efforts. The children described a wrenching process of coercion, deception and force. Russia has defended the transfers on humanitarian grounds.
Lawyers familiar with the ICC’s case recently said they expected prosecutors to proceed with the arrest warrants because there was a strong trail of public evidence.
On Friday, the court said in a statement it was mindful “the conduct addressed in the present situation is allegedly ongoing, and that the public awareness of the warrants may contribute to the prevention of the further commission of crimes”.
What is the ICC?
The ICC was created two decades ago as a standing body to investigate war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity under a 1998 treaty known as the Rome Statute.
Previously, the United Nations Security Council had established ad hoc tribunals to address atrocities in places such as the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
The court is based in The Hague, a Dutch city that has long been a centre for international law and justice.
Many democracies joined the ICC, including close American allies such as Britain. But the United States has long kept its distance, fearing that the court might one day seek to prosecute American officials, and Russia is also not a member.
The Biden administration has been engaged in an internal dispute over whether to provide the court with evidence gathered by the US intelligence community about Russian war crimes.
Most members of the Biden administration favour transferring the evidence, according to people familiar with the internal deliberations, but the Pentagon has baulked because it does not want to set a precedent that could pave the way for eventual prosecutions of Americans.
What does the warrant mean for Putin?
Human rights groups hailed the warrant as an important step towards ending impunity for Russian war crimes in Ukraine, but the likelihood of a trial while Mr Putin remains in power appears slim, because the court cannot try defendants in absentia and Russia has said it will not surrender its officials.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry quickly dismissed the warrants, noting that it is not a party to the court. Still, the warrant for Mr Putin’s arrest deepens his isolation in the West and could limit his movements overseas. If he travels to a state that is party to the ICC, that country must arrest him, according to its obligations under international law.
“This makes Putin a pariah,” said Mr Stephen Rapp, a former ambassador-at-large heading the Office of Global Criminal Justice in the US State Department. “If he travels, he risks arrest. This never goes away.”
And, he said, Russia cannot gain relief from sanctions without complying with the warrants.
“Either Putin is placed on trial in The Hague,” Mr Rapp said, or “he is increasingly isolated and dies with this hanging over his head”.
So Putin may never face trial?
The court has no power to arrest sitting heads of state or bring them to trial, and instead must rely on other leaders and governments to act as its sheriffs around the world. A suspect who manages to evade capture may never have a hearing to confirm the charges.
However, in 2022, a legal move complicated the issue. In November, the court’s prosecutor petitioned to move ahead with the confirmation of charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity against Joseph Kony, the Ugandan militant and founder of the Lord’s Resistance Army, even though he is not in custody and has been a fugitive for years. Kony, who transformed kidnapped children into soldiers, is accused of murder, cruel treatment, enslavement, rape and attacks against civilians. NYTIMES