What does the move mean for Russia’s leader?
What is the international criminal court arrest warrant for?
The court has issued arrest warrants for the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and its commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, in relation to the forced deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia, where many have been adopted by Russians. Forced deportation of populations is recognised as a crime under the Rome statute that established the court.
Russia was a signatory to the Rome statute but withdrew in 2016, saying it did not recognise the court’s jurisdiction.
Although Ukraine is itself not a signatory to the court in The Hague, it granted the ICC jurisdiction to
investigate war crimes committed on its territory. Four visits by the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, over the past year have led to a ruling that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that Mr Putin bears individual criminal responsibility” for the child abductions.
What does that mean?
Because Russia does not recognise the court and does not extradite its citizens, it is highly unlikely that Putin or Lvova-Belova will be surrendered to the court’s jurisdiction soon.
But the issuing of the warrant remains a highly significant moment for several reasons. It sends a signal to senior Russian officials – both military and civilian – who might be vulnerable to prosecution now or in the future and would further limit their ability to travel internationally, potentially including attendance at international forums.
Don’t serving heads of government enjoy immunity?
While the ICC does not recognise immunity for heads of state in cases involving war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide, South Africa controversially declined to enforce an ICC warrant for the arrest of the Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir during a visit in 2015.
Pretoria argued that it saw “no duty under international law and the Rome statute to arrest a serving head of state of a [ICC] non-stateparty such as Omar al-Bashir” and several other countries that he visited also declined to arrest him.
The arrest of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London in 1998 on an international warrant issued by the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón illustrates the difficulties involved in such immunity issues.
Pinochet claimed immunity as a former head of state – a claim rejected by the British courts – but ultimately the then British home secretary, Jack Straw, allowed him to return home on health grounds.
So what is the point of this?
While Putin seems secure in his power now and safe from extradition, a future Kremlin leader might decide it is more politic to send him to The Hague than to protect him. A good example is Slobodan Milošević, a former president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, who was indicted on a series of war crimes charges by the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the
midst of the war in Kosovo in 1999. In 2001, amid a struggle between key opposing figures in Serbia following Milošević’s fall from power, prime minister Zoran Đinđić ignored a court ruling banning the extradition and ordered the transfer of Milosevic to The Hague, saying: “Any other solution except cooperation [with The Hague] would lead the country to disaster.”
Milošević’s initial arrest – preceding his transfer – followed pressure on the Yugoslav government to detain the former president or risk losing substantial US economic aid and loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
Are other warrants likely to follow?
The judge added that the prosecutor could form cases of new allegations against Putin, thus expanding the warrants.
Human Rights Watch described the decision to issue an arrest warrant for Putin as a “wakeup call to others committing abuses or covering them up.
“The ICC has made Putin a wanted man and taken its first step to end the impunity that has emboldened perpetrators in Russia’s war against Ukraine for far too long,” said Balkees Jarrah of Human Rights Watch.