ICC arrest warrant pierces Putin’s aura of impunity
LONDON — The International Criminal Court has charged Russian President Vladimir V. Putin with war crimes and on Friday issued a warrant for his arrest, a highly symbolic move that has deepened his isolation and broken the aura of impunity that surrounded him since he commanded troops in Ukraine a year ago.
The court cited Mr Putin’s responsibility for the kidnapping and deportation of Ukrainian children, thousands of whom have been sent to Russia since the invasion. He also issued a warrant against Russian Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova, the public face of the Kremlin-sponsored program that transfers children out of Ukraine.
Mr. Putin is unlikely to stand trial in a courtroom anytime soon. The International Criminal Court cannot try defendants in absentia and Russia, which is not a party to the court, has dismissed the warrants as “meaningless”.
Yet the court’s decision carried indisputable moral weight, placing Mr. Putin in the same ranks as Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the ousted president of Sudan, accused of atrocities in Darfur; Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader imprisoned for abuses during the Balkan war; and the Nazis on trial at Nuremberg after World War II.
“There are reasonable grounds to believe that Mr. Putin bears individual criminal responsibility,” said the tribunal, established two decades ago to investigate war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.
The two Russians, the court said, bore “responsibility for the war crime of illegal deportation of population and that of illegal transfer of population from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation”.
In practice, the warrant could restrict Mr Putin’s travel, as he could be arrested in any of the 123 countries that have joined the International Criminal Court – a list that includes virtually all European countries and several in Africa and Latin America. , but not China or the United States.
Human rights activists and Ukrainian officials have hailed the warrants as proof that Mr Putin and his lieutenants can no longer act with impunity in Ukraine. For Mr Putin, who already operates with an inner circle of advisers in the Kremlin, it makes the world look smaller, even as he plans to welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping, perhaps his most powerful ally, to Moscow the next day. next week.
The warrants also shed light on one of the most harrowing and harrowing subplots of Russia’s brutal war: the forcible transfer of Ukrainian children and adolescents to Russia or parts of Ukraine controlled by Russia. Many are orphans, but Ukrainian officials say others have been separated from their parents or legal guardians. Russia has admitted transferring 2,000 children; Ukrainian officials say they have confirmed 16,000 cases.
“It would be impossible to carry out such a criminal operation without the order of the highest leader of the terrorist state,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video statement, in which he welcomed the arrest warrant for Mr. Putin as the beginning of “historical responsibility”.
Stephen Rapp, a former roving ambassador who headed the Bureau of Global Criminal Justice at the State Department, said in an email that “this makes Putin an outcast.”
“If he travels, he risks being arrested,” he continued. “It never goes away.”
Moreover, he said, Russia cannot have international sanctions lifted without complying with court warrants. Mr Rapp said he believed Mr Putin would eventually end up in The Hague, where other accused war criminals have been tried – some, like Mr Milosevic, before ICC ad hoc tribunals. “Otherwise,” Mr. Rapp said, Mr. Putin “dies with this hanging over his head.”
Still, the public nature of the warrants and the narrow scope of the crimes raised questions among legal experts, who noted the court had come under intense pressure to act against Mr Putin.
Russian troops have killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians and ravaged civilian infrastructure in artillery strikes on Ukrainian cities. This week, The New York Times reported that the court intends to open two cases related to the Russian invasion, according to officials familiar with the plans; the second was to focus on Russian attacks on infrastructure.
“We don’t know what the full claim was,” said Philippe Sands, an international law expert who is the director of the Center on International Courts and Tribunals at University College London. “We don’t know if the prosecutor wanted an arrest warrant for other crimes.”
Targeting Mr. Putin is a bold move by the court, which could have started with mid-level officials and worked its way all the way up to the president, Mr. Sands said. “No doubt there will be many questions about why this particular crime happened and why the decision to go public now,” he added.
Unlike US courts, where suspects are usually charged before being arrested, International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan presented evidence before a seven-judge chamber showing reasonable grounds to believe the suspects were responsible for war crimes. The arrest warrants informed them of what they would most likely be charged with if tried.
If Mr. Putin and Ms. Lvova-Belova were arrested and brought before the court in The Hague, they would have a preliminary hearing during which prosecutors would present evidence which they said would be sufficient for the case to go to trial.
The catch is that if a suspect managed to evade capture, he would never get a hearing to “confirm” the charges, said Harold Hongju Koh, a professor of international law at Yale Law School and former top lawyer at the State Department. . As a result, Mr Koh said, “maybe that’s all we get” for Mr Putin.
Still, Mr Koh said he believed the court’s action was a ‘net benefit’ as it could discourage China from giving arms to Russia and send a chilling message to other members of the bureaucracy. Russian regarding involvement in war crimes such as child abduction. It could also ease resistance within the Pentagon to sharing evidence with the court.
Russian officials were withering in their reaction to the arrest warrants. Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said the announcement had “no significance for our country, including from a legal point of view”.
“Russia is not cooperating with this body,” she added, calling any effort by the ICC to make the arrests “legally null and void for us.”
The limits of the tribunal are well known. While he can indict sitting heads of state, he has no power to arrest or bring them to justice, instead relying on other leaders and governments to act as sheriffs. This was illustrated most starkly by the case of Mr. al-Bashir, the ousted Sudanese leader, who was not arrested in the other countries he visited.
Although the tribunal is backed by many democratic countries, including close American allies like Britain, the United States has long kept its distance, fearing that the tribunal will one day attempt to prosecute Americans.
A low point came in 2017, when the court’s chief prosecutor tried to investigate the torture of detainees charged with terrorism during the George W. Bush administration. The Trump administration imposed sanctions on court staff and then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced him as corrupt.
Relations thawed in 2021, when the Biden administration revoked Mr. Trump’s sanctions and a newly appointed prosecutor, Mr. Khan, dropped the investigation.
National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said the United States supports efforts to bring war criminals to justice, noting that the ICC prosecutor is independent and makes evidence-based decisions. .
The story of children abducted in Ukraine has been shrouded in less secrecy than other abuses during the war, in part because Russian officials have sought to portray it as a humanitarian effort to care for the war’s youngest victims.
Yet a New York Times investigation published in October, which identified several Ukrainian children who had been abducted, described a harrowing process of coercion, deception and force. Upon arrival in Russia, children were often placed in homes to become Russian citizens and subjected to re-education efforts.
On Thursday, a United Nations commission of inquiry said Russia’s transfer of children and other civilians from Ukraine to Russia could constitute a war crime, observing that none of the cases it was investigating did not was justified under international law. Ukraine reported the transfer of 16,226 children to Russia, but the commission said it was unable to verify the number.
Mr Khan, the chief prosecutor, said the illegal transfers of children were a priority for his investigators. “Children cannot be treated like spoils of war,” he said after visiting a children’s home in southern Ukraine this month which he said had been emptied following of evictions.
In Ukraine, officials have expressed satisfaction that Mr. Putin has been branded a war criminal. Some said they were convinced that the legal grip on the Russian leader would only tighten. There are calls for the creation of a special tribunal that would try Mr. Putin and his lieutenants for the crime of aggression.
“This is just the beginning,” said Mr Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak.
The report was provided by charlie savage from washington, Marlise Simons from Morocco, Emma Bubola From Rome, Carlotta Gall from Kramatorsk, Ukraine, Marc Santora from Kyiv, Valerie Hopkins from Berlin and Anouchka Patil from New York.