The ICC response to Russia’s war gives hope for justice

The ICC’s arrest warrants against Putin and Lvova-Belova show the commission of international crimes is not without consequences.

Expert comment Updated 20 March 2023 Published 19 March 2023 3 minute READ

Warrants of arrest for Russian president Vladimir Putin and Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, commissioner for children’s rights in the president’s office, have been issued because the Pre-Trial Chamber II of the International Criminal Court (ICC) has reasonable grounds to believe they have committed war crimes.

Following an independent investigation and evidence-gathering by the ICC prosecutor Karim Khan in his first new case since taking office, the pair are accused of committing two different war crimes – the unlawful deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia, and the unlawful transfer of children from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.

The focus on those two war crimes is likely due to clear evidence that deportation and forcible transfer of thousands of Ukrainian children have occurred, as the Russian government was overt about its policy of taking Ukrainian children to Russia and placing them in camps or putting them up for adoption by Russian families.

Furthermore, in line with the Office of the Prosecutor’s policy on children, crimes against children are prioritized given their particularly vulnerable status.

Jurisdiction and enforcement

The ICC does not have jurisdiction over crimes committed fully in Russia by Russian nationals, as Russia is not a party to the Rome Statute which created the ICC.

However, it does have jurisdiction over war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide committed in Ukraine irrespective of who committed them, pursuant to two declarations lodged by Ukraine in 2014 accepting the Court’s jurisdiction over its territory from November 2013.

Making the warrants public enables the ICC to reclaim itself as a key avenue for ensuring accountability for international crimes, following a wave of criticism and disenchantment about its work

Although a prosecution has been initiated, it is ultimately for the judges of the ICC to decide on the accused’s fate. But the chances of Putin getting arrested or tried for these offences are slim.

The ICC lacks enforcement or police powers and depends on state cooperation to execute arrest warrants. Also, because it cannot try individuals in their absence, a trial or conviction cannot occur without Putin and Lvova-Belova being in custody.

But by issuing and unsealing these arrest warrants, the ICC is relying on the symbolic function of international criminal law – it is publicly naming and shaming Putin and Lvova-Belova for the commission of serious atrocities, and it is sending a message to other leaders and the international community that such actions are not without consequence.

The arrest warrants also give victims some form of vindication or recognition for their suffering and hope for justice in the future. And making the warrants public enables the ICC to reclaim itself as a key avenue for ensuring accountability for international crimes, following a wave of criticism and disenchantment about its work in Africa and delays in advancing its investigation on Afghanistan.

International courts gearing into action

This ICC case is the latest in a series of ongoing cases related to Russia’s war in Ukraine before different international courts and tribunals. Others include at least four cases before the European Court of Human Rights for events that occurred before Russia was excluded from the Council of Europe, such as the MH17 flight case and the annexation of Crimea.

They showcase an important feature of the global legal system and its judicial architecture that cannot be underestimated – the ability to quickly swing into action in response to violations of international law

Two cases have also been brought by Ukraine against Russia before the International Court of Justice – in 2017 and 2022 – with hearings scheduled for June. An unprecedented number of states parties have sought to intervene in one or more of these cases.

Each case must be considered on its own merits and the decisions cannot be prejudged. But they showcase an important feature of the global legal system and its judicial architecture that cannot be underestimated – the ability to quickly swing into action in response to violations of international law. In this case, the response was prompted by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in breach of the United Nations Charter and fundamental principles of international law.

A starting point for a bigger case

The ICC prosecutor already has a broader investigation into other international crimes committed in Ukraine since 21 November 2013. So this is likely to be just the starting point of a much bigger case against Putin and other senior Russian officials for international crimes committed in the context of the war in Ukraine and within the ICC’s jurisdiction.

These potentially include other war crimes such as the indiscriminate or disproportionate targeting of civilians, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

The ICC response to Russia’s war gives hope for justice 2nd part

However, the ICC will eventually need custody of the accused for these cases to proceed to trial. States that are party to the Rome Statute are required to cooperate with the ICC and so would be expected to hand over the accused if they travel to the territory of such states. But some governments may plead head of state immunity over crimes committed by nationals of states which are not parties to the ICC – a question that came before the ICC Appeals Chamber in the context of Sudan in 2020.

Whatever lies ahead, the arrest warrants play an important role in helping deter similar international crimes by other leaders in Russia and around the world.