Explainer Beat: International Criminal Court issues arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials

President of Russia Vladimir Putin during a meeting with President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko at the Bocharov Ruchei residence in Sochi, Russia. Photo by the Presidential Executive Office of Russia, 26 September 2022.

On March 17, 2023, Reuters reported that the International Criminal Court  issued warrants for the arrest of Russian president Vladimir Putin and Russian commissioner for children’s rights Maria Lvova-Belova for war crimes. This marks the third instance of a sitting head of state being issued a warrant by the ICC and the first time for a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. 

The day before, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, formed on May 12, 2022 to investigate the status of human rights during the Russian invasion of Ukraine declared that there was substantial evidence that Russian authorities had forcibly transferred Ukrainian children into Russia. The children were placed under the care of Russian families with no way to contact their families or know their whereabouts, according to BBC

“In some cases, parents or children told the Commission that once in Russia-controlled areas, transferred children were made to wear ‘dirty clothes, were screamed at, and called names.’ They also said that ‘some children with disabilities did not receive adequate care and medication’… It also quotes witnesses as saying that the smaller children transferred may have not been able to establish contact with their families and might, as a consequence, ‘lose contact with them indefinitely,’” BBC said. 

The article also mentions other war crimes not included in the ICC prosecution, including rape, intentional murder of civilians, attacking hospitals and preventing civilians from escaping combat zones. 

“The Russian Army has been conducting warfare in a manner which shows a complete disregard for human life, especially civilian life” said Richard Wilson, a University of Connecticut professor of law and anthropology, during an interview over Zoom. 

“There is evidence of abuse and execution of prisoners, execution of noncombatants, attacking non-military targets like schools and apartments. They’re using medieval forms of warfare, there has to be some kind of accountability.” 

Wilson explained that, should Putin or Lvova-Belova enter any of the 193 signing countries of the Rome Statute, a 1998 treaty that establishes the ICC’s jurisdiction over crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide or crimes of aggression, must transfer them over to face trial.  

“The ICC functions like any other court. There is a prosecution, in this case Karim Khan, who has worked on providing sufficient evidence for the trial to proceed. Should Putin be brought to trial, he has the right to an attorney as much as anyone else does,” Wilson said. 

States aligned or friendly with Russia worry the arrest warrant could make a peace settlement in Ukraine more difficult, according to ABC

Hungary and South Africa’s governments have both issued statements that they will not arrest Putin if he is in their territory, citing concerns that an arrest could anger Russian leadership and lead to escalation. 

“One potential way of easing the way to peace talks could be for the United Nations Security Council to call on the International Criminal Court to suspend the Ukraine investigation for a year, which is allowed under Article 16 of the Rome Statute treaty that created the court,” according to ABC.  

Wilson clarified that, while the Security Council has this power, it requires unanimous support from all five permanent members of the council: China, France, the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom. With the U.S., France and the U.K. opposing Russian aggression in Ukraine, Wilson said a delay would be unlikely. 

“Putin will likely continue to stay in Russia,” Wilson detailed. “As an authoritarian ruler, he wouldn’t turn himself in to the ICC and face trial in the Hague, but should the Russian people decide that enough is enough and have him overthrown, they could agree to send him to trial. This has happened a few times in history — countries emerging from dictatorships like Serbia or Chile or Liberia have all sent former leaders to the Hague as an offramp when they transition from conflict or authoritarianism. It may not be guaranteed he will face justice, but there is always a chance,” Wilson concluded. 

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