THE HAGUE—The International Criminal Court (ICC) has taken the major step of issuing an arrest warrant against Vladimir Putin over the Ukraine war.
But does this mean that the Russian president—accused of the war crime of deporting children—is really ever likely to stand trial in The Hague?
ICC member states are obliged to carry out the arrest warrants against Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s presidential commissioner for children’s rights, if they travel to their countries.
But while that could make travel difficult for the Russian leader, the court has no police force of its own to enforce its warrants, and relies entirely on ICC states playing ball.
Countries haven’t always done so—particularly when it involves a sitting head of state like Putin.
Former Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, who remains wanted for genocide in Darfur, has managed to visit a number of ICC member states, including South Africa and Jordan despite being subject to an ICC warrant.
After his ouster in 2019, Sudan has yet to hand him over.
Matthew Waxman, a professor at Columbia Law School, said the arrest order against Putin is a “very significant step by the ICC.”
But “the chances are slim that we will ever see Putin arrested,” he said.
First and foremost, Russia — like the United States and China — is not a member of the ICC. Russia signed the court’s founding Rome Statute, but did not ratify it to become a member. On Putin’s orders, it withdrew its signature in 2016, after the ICC launched a probe into the 2008 war in Georgia.
The ICC is only able to file charges against Putin because Ukraine has accepted its jurisdiction over the current situation, although Kyiv, too, is not a member. Russia does not extradite its citizens in any case. And Putin is unlikely to end up in the dock for war crimes “unless there is a regime change in Russia,” said Cecily Rose, assistant professor of public international law at Leiden University.
Against all odds
Yet history has seen several senior figures who have been charged against all odds, said ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan.
“There are so many examples of people who thought they were beyond the reach of the law …. They found themselves in courts,” he said.
“Look at Milosevic or Charles Taylor or Karadzic or Mladic.”
The ICC convicted former Liberian warlord-turned-president Taylor in 2012 of war crimes and crimes against humanity.Former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic died in his cell in The Hague in 2006 while on trial for genocide at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal.
Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was captured in 2008 and convicted of genocide by the tribunal. His military leader Ratko Mladic was arrested in 2011 and sentenced to life imprisonment.
The ICC cannot try suspects in absentia, but Khan said the court had “other pieces of architecture” to push cases forward.
He cited a case in which he asked judges to hold a hearing to confirm charges against Joseph Kony even if he remained at large.
The leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army had launched a bloody rebellion in Uganda in the late 1980s.
“That process may be available for any other case—including the current one” involving Putin, Khan said.
The ICC is conducting 17 other investigations, including cases in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Venezuela, Myanmar, and the Philippines.
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