International justice: ICC issues arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin

Yola VerbruggenThursday 30 March 2023

On 17 March, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin – only the third such warrant targeting a sitting head of state. Putin stands accused of overseeing the illegal deportation of hundreds of children from Ukraine to Russia since its invasion began in February 2022.

‘Incidents identified by my Office include the deportation of at least hundreds of children taken from orphanages and children’s care homes. Many of these children, we allege, have since been given for adoption in the Russian Federation,’ said Karim Khan, Prosecutor of the ICC, in a statement following the announcement.

One of these children, from Mariupol, has been ‘adopted’ by Maria Lvova-Belova, Putin’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights, who has been indicted alongside him. Russia has claimed that it was a humanitarian decision to take orphaned Ukrainian children out of a war zone to safety. But many of them have relatives who are in despair after learning about their disappearances.

‘For us, it’s a first step,’ says Oleksandra Matviichuk, Chair of the Board of the Center for Civil Liberties in Kyiv. ‘It’s recognition that it’s not only our imagination. It’s not an illusion. It’s important that it is now officially considered a crime, and to send a signal that even people at Putin’s level will be punished. But it’s just the beginning.’

The warrants are a crucial milestone in the path towards accountability for atrocity crimes

Mark Ellis
Executive Director, International Bar Association

Mark Ellis, IBA Executive Director, welcomes the indictment. ‘The arrest warrant reaffirms that justice and accountability are principles fundamental to the world legal order and worth supporting,’ he says. ‘The warrants are a crucial milestone in the path towards accountability for atrocity crimes.’ And even though Putin might not be arrested and tried any time soon, Ellis believes that the arrest warrant comes at a high price for Russia’s President. ‘It consigns him to the ranks of past heads of state turned war criminals, such as Slobodan Milošević, Charles Taylor, Muammar Gaddafi and Omar Al Bashir,’ he says. ‘There is no coming back from this arrest warrant.’

While acknowledging the political significance of the indictment of a sitting head of state, Sara Elizabeth Dill, Treasurer of the IBA War Crimes Committee and a partner at Anethum Global in London, wonders whether pursuing a case against Putin is the best use of scarce ICC resources, considering that he might never end up in court. ‘The basis of the indictment is also under question, as there are conflicting reports as to the allegations, and some of the children may have been voluntarily given up for adoption,’ she says. ‘Yet another aspect is the repercussions, if any, that this will have on potential peace negotiations; that is whether it will create a greater divide and resistance, or if Putin even considers the threat of prosecution to be a matter to negotiate amnesty in exchange for peace.’ However, she adds, the indictment ‘certainly has resulted in deeper international attention and understanding of international justice and accountability efforts.’

Irina Paliashvili, Founder of the Washington-based RULG-Ukrainian Legal Group, believes that for people in Ukraine, in the midst of war, the value of the indictment is tremendous. ‘In Ukrainian society, I think there is a huge demand for justice,’ she says. After attending the United for Justice conference in Lviv in early March, which aimed at creating accountability mechanisms for crimes committed during the war, she was asked repeatedly by Ukrainians if this meant justice would actually be served. ‘When a child is abducted, it’s a tragedy for the family. But the whole nation wants justice,’ says Paliashvili. ‘For Ukraine, this [indictment] is a […] historic sign that justice will be served.’

The ICC indictment comes amidst negotiations about the establishment of an international tribunal and alongside national trials in Ukraine. The first war crime conviction in a Ukrainian court, of a Russian soldier, took place in May last year. ‘The ICC cannot deal with all the thousands of cases that are currently in the General Prosecutor’s office, but they can go after the person giving the orders, the system. We need an international tribunal to try the crime of aggression,’ says Matviichuk.

The crime of aggression cannot be tried at the ICC in this particular instance, because neither Ukraine nor Russia are party to the Rome Statute, which established the Court. And while Ukraine has accepted the Court’s jurisdiction to try crimes committed on its territory, the crime of aggression would require ratification of the Statute’s amendment that deals with this crime specifically, in both Russia and Ukraine. ‘However, given Putin’s role as the architect of the war and the large-scale crimes being committed by Russian troops in Ukraine, I am certain that further charges will be brought against him at the ICC,’ says Ellis.

What it means for Russia is a matter of speculation, says Paliashvili. One response has come from the Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, who has stated that: ‘The decisions of the International Criminal Court have no meaning for our country, including from a legal point of view.’

Ex-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, meanwhile, threatened to attack the war crimes tribunal in the Hague with missiles. The Assembly of States Parties – the management oversight and legislative body of the ICC – responded by reaffirming in a statement its ‘full confidence in the Court as an independent and impartial judicial institution’ and stated it would defend the principles of the Rome Statute ‘undeterred by any threats’.

Image credit: Ankor light/