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  • Isaac Bly

The First Steps for International Justice For Ukraine?

From the Courts

March 17th, 2023 the Pre-Trial Chamber II of the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued two arrest warrants, one for President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin and one for Ms. Maria Lvova-Belova, Commissioner for Children’s Rights in the Office of the President of the Russian Federation. While both were charged with the war crime of unlawful deportation of population and the unlawful transfer of population, children in both cases, from occupied Ukraine to the Russian Federation. Both crimes are reported to have been committed by February 24th, 2022. While both are said to bear “individual criminal responsibility” the charges do defer between them with Putin holding an additional failure due to his higher and wider ranging authority, all of this in violation of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. These accusations do not currently constitute genocide under the Rome Statute, though it is perhaps not far from article 6 (e), “Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” which does qualify as genocide, however it is possible this cureent accusation is merely building the case for an eventual assertion of genocide.

The large-scale deportation of Ukrainian citizens has been known for a while, with Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova, stating in June of 2022 that Ukraine was investigating several potential war crimes, including the forceful transfer of civilians since the earliest days of the conflict. Early evidence indicates that these actions were not improvised but rather patiently designed, operating on a massive scale: a planned, systematic effort to relocate, catalog, detain, process and deport. The broad strokes of the Russian narrative around these efforts seem to be criticizing accusations as bizarre and outrageous, and painting this as either a voluntary action by civilians or in dire cases, a necessity for their safety. Posing this system as a humanitarian good being protected by Russia.

To the Accused

Responses to the warrant have mostly been divided by the already drawn lines with Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov saying, “And accordingly, any decisions of this kind are null and void for the Russian Federation from the point of view of law” This is perhaps unsurprising considering Russia is not under any strict legal obligation to recognize the Rome statute as Russia, along with Ukraine, China, Belarus, and the US not having signed the agreement. On the other hand, President of the United States Joe Biden seemed to endorse the warrant saying, “Well, I think it's justified.”

It is hard to tell if this warrant has changed Chinese political calculus which held the course with Chinese President Xi Jinping still deciding to meet with Putin in Russia for the first time, though the results were rather limited, slightly moving forwards existing trends, reiterating the nation’s relationship, and making vague promises with little firm resolutions made by either side.

In light of how isolated Russia and Putin are on the global stage, it is difficult to detect how either has truly been affected by the warrant, if anything it is the institutionalization of these crimes to create the incentive and further the justification for the existing scrutiny. However, it has put perhaps more serious consequences for Putin and those nations on the sidelines, turning condementation into a more legal obligation.

Looking Forwards

Historically, the ICC has been able to locate and trial every head of state that it has sought to arrest from Serbian president Slobodan Milošević and even recently, the former President of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir who had evaded the ICC for thirteen years. However, Russia, and Putin are different creature, a member state of the Security Council (and soon to be temporary president of) and one of the most powerful people on earth presently. Beyond the issue of bringing someone as powerful as Putin to trial, it has certainly creating a standard for confronting global leaders, even those not certain to be facing total defeat.

More than this it has solidified the role of a rules based global order which Putin has disrupted, creating an obligation for other countries to isolate Putin and Lvova-Belova should enter the sovereign territory of another state that wishes to abide by the rules of the ICC. While this does not guarantee Putin will be unable to leave Russia (as the previously mentioned former president of Sudan was able to enter a signatory country without being arrested), it does put him in further contrast to the existing order if such a thing is possible, if not more importantly forcing those who align with him to more directly oppose the existing international structure.

There is perhaps some risk in terms of reputation for the ICC and the traditional international order in this as this could be a case where they are unable to bring to justice a high value authority. Because for all the Russian failures in Ukraine and international disenfranchisement, Russia is still a major power and its military however denuded is still not a spent force, and still able to produce hard and costly battles in Ukraine, nor is the Russian economy bounding towards collapse in the face of pressing sanctions.


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