The International Criminal Court (ICC) vs Putin: Can International Justice Reach the Kremlin?

The International Criminal Court (ICC) recently issued an arrest warrant for the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin. Understanding the circumstances around this turn of events will help understand how enforcement of International law works and what consequences this warrant will have—if any.

The Charges Against Putin

Putin has been charged with transferring Ukrainian children, especially orphans, from occupied territories to Russia. This is a war crime and a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which deals with regulating occupation, the rights and duties of occupying forces, and the people living within these territories. The Russian Commissioner for Children’s Rights in the Office of the Russian Federation, Ms. Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, has been charged with the same.

Russia’s Response

Putin’s office has responded to the news by calling the warrant irrelevant as neither Russia nor Ukraine is a party to the Rome Statute under which the ICC operates, and thus, Putin’s actions in either territory fall outside the jurisdiction of the ICC. Furthermore, they state that the transfers kept the children’s best interests at heart since most of them had been orphaned due to the conflict. They will be given new homes, and their right to education shall be ensured.

The Consequences

The ICC has 123 member states, not including Russia, Ukraine, or for that matter, the US. The warrant puts a duty on these members to arrest Putin and bring him to court for trial. This means that he may be arrested if Putin were to leave Russia and visit a different country. Furthermore, because of the warrant and the reputation that comes with it, businesses may choose to distance themselves. However, this is all on paper, and the reality will probably differ.

The Actual Effects

International law depends on the relations between states. While a state has a government with different tools and bodies to ensure the enforcement of its laws, international law needs the help of these nations for its enforcement. This leaves it completely at the mercy of international politics. If these nations do not consider it in their best interests to follow through on their “obligations”, there is nothing that anybody of international law by itself can do.

Now, it should come as no surprise that there are not many nations in the world willing to risk any conflict with Russia, and thus it is highly unlikely that, if he were to visit any of these nations, there would be any threat of arrest to President Putin. Furthermore, the ICC’s warrants and decisions hold such little weight outside of the international legal fraternity that it is highly unlikely that it would make any difference to the reputation that Putin already holds. Thus, any states, businesses, or individuals still having relations with Putin and/or Russia would likely remain unbothered, and these relations unaffected by the warrant.

Will it Ensure the Protection of the Children?

The Fourth Geneva Convention’s regulations do not only prohibit the transfer of children in and out of these territories but of any civilians. The specific wording of the warrant mentioning children is likely to protect these children in particular and to make a point of this. As far as their protection and return are concerned, there is very little that the ICC can do in this regard.

The International Criminal Court deals with violations of international law by individuals. It would thus punish Putin and the commissioner, but it cannot seek redressal for those crimes. While still almost impossible, the most viable option would be if the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) were to step in. The ICC statute permits the UNSC to pause the ICC’s proceedings for up to a year. This would then allow the Security Council to bargain a compromise with the Russian Federation, but knowing the tense political climate between the UN and Russia, that is very unlikely to happen.

Why This Charge?

The ICC is a court, and like any other court, it believes in the right to a fair trial. A conviction cannot simply be handed out and acted upon. The warrant in question would allow for the President’s legal arrest and have him presented before the court. Should these charges be proven after he has been given his fair chance at refuting them, he will be punished. The issue of deporting children is very well documented and can easily be argued, and it is most likely to ensure a conviction.

Furthermore, the simple act of participating in an armed conflict against another state, while prohibited by international law, is unlikely to lead to any legal consequences before the end of the conflict. And the four Geneva Conventions regulate the actions of states during wartime. Particularly, this involves the protection of civilians not partaking in the conflict. But here again, the issue would be proving these charges.

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