Putin’s arrest warrant
Vladimir Putin is only the third serving president to have been issued an ICC arrest warrant, after Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.
But what is the definition of a war crime?
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, “even war has rules”, that are set out in treaties called the Geneva Conventions along with other international laws and agreements.
According to the treaties, military forces cannot deliberately attack civilians, nor the infrastructure that is vital to their survival. Some weapons are banned because of the indiscriminate suffering they cause, such as anti-personnel landmines, and chemical or biological weapons. The sick and wounded must be cared for, including injured soldiers, who have rights as prisoners of war. Serious offences such as murder, rape or mass persecution of a group are known as “crimes against humanity” or in some circumstances “genocide”.
What are the latest allegations against Putin?
The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine has said there is evidence of the illegal transfer of hundreds of Ukrainian children to Russia. Russia has introduced policies such as forcing children to take Russian citizenship and placing them in foster families to “create a framework in which some of the children may end up remaining permanently” in Russia, the commission’s report notes. While the transfers were supposed to be temporary, “most became prolonged”, with both parents and children facing “an array of obstacles in establishing contact”, the UN investigators wrote. Ukraine government figures put the number of children forcibly taken to Russia at 16,221. These forced deportations “violate international humanitarian law and amount to a war crime”, concludes the UN report.
The UN said that in addition to the rapes, killings and widespread torture, Moscow could be responsible for the even more serious “crimes against humanity” – notably the wave of Russian attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure that began last October.
Mass burial sites have been found in several parts of Ukraine previously occupied by Russian troops, including some holding civilian bodies showing signs of torture.
What are Russia and Ukraine’s responses?
Also Russian children’s commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova was issued an arrest warrant, and she has reportedly responded with a sarcastic message. “It’s great that the international community has appreciated this work to help the children of our country: that we don’t leave them in war zones,” she said, according to Russian state-owned news agency Ria Novosti.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has called the ICC’s arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin a “historic decision, from which historical responsibility will begin”.
He says Putin and children’s commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova “have officially become suspects in a war crime”.
“The deportation of Ukrainian children is the illegal transfer of thousands of our children to Russian territory,” he said. “It would be impossible to carry out such a criminal operation without the order of the top leader of the terrorist state”.
Can Putin really be arrested?
Although President Vladimir Putin’s arrest warrant is a very symbolic historical decision, it is important to underline that it is no more than the first step in a very long process.
The court clearly believes there is sufficient evidence to accuse the Russian leader of war crimes in Ukraine.
However, the practical and logistical problems in pursuing such a case are immense. Nowadays, the Russian leader enjoys unchallenged power in his native land, so there is no prospect of the Kremlin handing him over to the ICC. As long as he stays put in Russia, he faces no risk of being arrested. Mr Putin could be detained only if he leaves the country, but given the fact that his freedom of movement is already severely limited by international sanctions against him, he is unlikely to show up in a country that would want to put him on trial. It is highly unlikely that, at present, Putin will actually face trial.
In fact, Russia does not recognise the jurisdiction of the ICC. The International Criminal 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. Some countries, including Ukraine, have signed the treaty, but not ratified it.
Another obstacle to Putin’s trial is the fact that although it’s not unknown for trials to be held without the defendant in the dock, that’s not an option here: the ICC does not conduct trials in absentia.