The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin, a move that puts him on the same list as notorious despots like Omar al-Bashir and Muammar el-Qaddafi. The warrant accuses Putin of unlawful deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia – a war crime. However, the power of the move is largely symbolic, and Putin is unlikely to actually be arrested any time soon.
Last week, on the 17th of March, ICC judges issued an arrest warrant against Putin, stating that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that Mr Putin bears individual criminal responsibility” for the war crime of deporting children from occupied regions of Ukraine to Russia. An equivalent warrant was also issued against Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, Russia’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights.
The Ukrainian government says more than 16,000 children have been deported to Russia. These deportation claims are also corroborated by a report out of Yale’s Human Rights Lab, published last October.
Russia isn’t hiding the deportation either – in fact it’s widely advertised as a humanitarian effort by the Kremlin, in a public campaign fronted by Lvova-Belova. Moscow frames the effort as ‘evacuation’, and says the children go to ‘camps for health and rest’, or other locations safe from shelling.
However, the consent of the children’s families is dubious, as is the transparency of the operation.
Daria Gerasimchuk, the Ukrainian government ombudswoman for abducted children, asserts that the circumstances of ‘evacuation’ are often sinister. “They kill the parents, for whatever reason, and kidnap the child. In other cases, they just grab the child directly from the family, perhaps to punish that family,” she told the Observer in Kyiv.
“Others go through the appallingly named ‘filtration camps’ – collected, indoctrinated and prepared for ‘adoption’ of the kind that commissioner Lvova-Belova has herself boasted.”
What could the ICC warrant actually do?
The ICC was established twenty years ago, under the Rome Statute of 1998. It’s a standing body charged with investigating war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. It has 123 member states – and Russia was one of them, but withdrew in 2016 and no longer recognises the jurisdiction of the court.
Ukraine also isn’t a member, but gave the ICC jurisdiction to investigate war crimes committed on its territory. When the ICC issues an arrest warrant, the accused then needs to travel to The Hague to be put on trial. The ICC cannot try people in absentia.
But because Russia doesn’t recognise the Court, or extradite its citizens, it’s extremely unlikely Putin or Lvova-Belova will be tried any time soon.
Still, the warrant is not entirely powerless. In the future, a successor of Putin could decide to send him to trial rather than protect him – like former Yugoslavian Slobodan Milošević, who was handed over to the ICC by Serbian PM Zoran Djindjić in 2001.
And theoretically, the warrant obligates any country that is a member of the ICC to arrest Putin if he sets foot in their country, limiting Putin’s ability to travel internationally. Although, South Africa refused to enforce an ICC warrant against Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir when he visited in 2015, saying it saw “no duty…to arrest a serving head of a [ICC] non-state-party”.
Ultimately, the power of the warrant lies in its symbolism. It puts Putin among the ranks of dictators like al-Bashir, Milošević, and Qaddafi. “This makes Putin a pariah,” says former ambassador and US official Stephen Rapp. “This never goes away. Either Putin is placed on trial in The Hague, [or] he is increasingly isolated, and dies with this hanging over his head.”
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