Last week, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian president Vladimir Putin. But could Putin ever actually be arrested? Let’s discuss this and more on today’s episode of Thinking in English!
- Warrant (n) – an official document, signed by a judge or other person in authority, that gives the police permission to search someone’s home, arrest a person, or take some other action
- The judge issued a warrant for his arrest.
- To allege (v) – to say that someone has done something illegal or wrong without giving proof
- She is alleged to have been at the centre of an international drug ring.
- Deportation (n) – forcing someone to leave a country, especially someone who has no legal right to be there or who has broken the law.
- The refugees were deported back to their country of origin.
- To ratify (v) – (especially of governments or organizations) to make an agreement official.
- Many countries have now ratified the UN convention on the rights of the child.
- To prosecute (v) – to try to prove that a person accused of committing a crime is guilty of that crime.
- He was prosecuted for fraud.
- To indoctrinate (v) – to often repeat an idea or belief to someone until they accept it without criticism or question.
- They have been indoctrinated by television to believe that violence is normal.
- Allegation (n) – a statement, made without giving proof, that someone has done something wrong or illegal.
- Several of her patients have made allegations of professional misconduct against her.
- Accusation (n) – a statement saying that someone has done something morally wrong, illegal, or unkind
- He was accused of fraud
The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin is accused of committing and ordering war crimes as part of his country’s invasion of Ukraine, which began around a year ago. More specifically, the ICC alleges Putin is responsible for the unlawful deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.
In addition to naming Putin, the court has also issued an arrest w arrant for Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova. According to the ICC, the war crimes were committed “in Ukrainian occupied territory at least from 24 February 2022.”
Last year, as I’m sure you all know, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of neighbouring Ukraine. Missiles rained down upon Ukrainian cities, infrastructure was destroyed, millions of Ukrainians forced to flee their homes, and large parts of Ukraine fell under Russian control.
From the beginning of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, there have been accusations of war crimes. I recorded an episode a year ago titled “What is a War Crime?” which was influenced by US president Joe Biden describing his Russian counterpart Putin as a “war criminal.” Attacks on hospitals, civilian infrastructure, and evacuation routes, as well as the use of the illegal weapons, have all been suggested as possible examples of Russian war crimes.
However, it is Russia’s treatment and deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia (many of whom have been adopted by Russian families) that has triggered the current arrest warrants. Initially, the ICC considered keeping the arrest warrants secret in order to protect witnesses and the investigation into Russia. The investigation was made public in an effort to prevent further war crimes and increase public awareness.
Ukrainian President Zelensky said he was grateful for the decision to charge “state evil”, the Ukrainian Prosecutor General described the event as “historic for Ukraine”, and Russian opposition leaders claimed it was a symbolic but important step.
On the other hand, the Russian government instantly dismissed the warrants. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev described the warrant as toilet paper, while the government spokesperson said the ICC’s decision were “null and void.”
Today, I want to explain in more detail the decision to issue an arrest warrant. I’ll look at the International Criminal Court, discuss what Putin is accused of, and conclude by talking about what the decision actually means.
What is the International Criminal Court?
History and Background of the ICC
The International Criminal Court is located in The Hague and has been an important tool of international justice since its formation in 2002.
For decades, the international community were hoping to create a permanent international court to deal with the most serious international crimes. Crimes like genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
Before the creation of the ICC, there were examples of temporary (or ad hoc) international courts that were set up to investigate specific issues. Most famously, the Nuremburg and Tokyo trials were held to address war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during World War 2. More recently, international tribunals were set up in the 1990s to investigate war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
These courts were only established for a specific purpose. They were designed only to try crimes committed in a specific crisis or conflict, and only within a specific time frame. The international community decided that there was a need for a permanent international court to exist in a permanent location, and be able to independently investigate and charge international war crimes.
After long discussions, 120 countries adopted the Rome Statute in 1998 which established the legal grounds for creating a permanent International Criminal Court. And after the treaty was ratified by 60 governments, the ICC officially began on 1 July 2002!
What Does the International Criminal Court do?
The International Criminal Court is not the only international court. There is the World Court or International Court of Justice which has the job of solving disputes and arguments between governments. So, what makes the ICC different?
It is designed to prosecute individuals – something the World Court cannot do. It was set up to try people responsible for the worst possible crimes: crimes like genocide and war crimes.
The ICC is what is known as a “court of last resort.” It is the final court – it will only act when all other courts have failed to do their job. The ICC will only intervene in a conflict when national governments and courts cannot prosecute a criminal, or will not prosecute a criminal.
An investigation starts after a case is referred to the court by the United Nations Security Council or by one of the countries that is a members of the ICC. Prosecutors working for the court can also take independent action but this needs to be approve by a panel of judges.
The first verdict reached by the ICC was to sentence Thomas Lubanga, the leader of a militia in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to 14 years of prison. He was convicted of war crimes involving child soldiers. Other famous cases include the former President of the Ivory Coast Laurent Gbagbo and Kenya’s President Kenyatta (the charges were dropped).
However, the International Criminal Court has limitations. The biggest limitation is that it has no way to arrest suspects on its own. It relies on the police forces and authorities in its member states to take action. Once a national police force makes an arrest, the suspect is then transferred to the Hague to be tried by the court.
Does this always work? No. The most famous example is with the charges against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. He was accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. In 2015 al-Bashir travelled to South Africa to attend a meeting of the African Union.
As a member nation of the ICC, South Africa should have arrested the Sudanese President and sent him to the court. Although a South African court did prevent him from leaving the country for a while, it ultimately let him return to Sudan without being arrested. Other members of the ICC, including Kenya and Chad, have refused to cooperate with the court and arrest suspects. The ICC is powerless with the cooperation of its member nations.
Furthermore, the court only has power over its member nations… and not every country has joined. In fact, about 120 countries have ratified the Rome Treaty (meaning their national governments and parliaments have approved it) and around 30 other countries have signed the treaty but not ratified it.
But some big countries are not members of the ICC and therefore don’t have to comply with its arrest warrant. The United States is not a member – they signed the treaty, but it was never going to be ratified by the US Congress (they rarely ratify any international treaties).
And countries like China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Turkey have never signed the treaty. While Israel, Egypt, Iran, and Russia have signed the treaty but never ratified it. This makes it very unlikely crimes against humanity or war crimes will be prosecuted if they occur in those countries.
What is Putin Accused of Doing?
What is a War Crime?
The ICC has accused Putin of committing war crimes. I released a whole episode on war crimes a year ago (I recommend listening to it if you have time), but I’ll give a short explanation here.
We often think of war as a ruthless and uncontrolled thing, but that is not necessarily the case. Wars have rules – rules that were decided by the international community together and set out what you can and can’t do in a war. Many of these rules are found in the Geneva Convention which has been signed and approved by every single country in the world (including Russia).
International humanitarian law is universal. This means that it applies to everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you are, you are supposed to be protected by these laws.
What about the rules of war? Let me give you a general idea. If you are fighting in a conflict, you must follow certain rules. You must protect people not fighting in the war (like civilians or medical workers); you must not target civilians or the things they use (like homes and crops); you must not attack medical facilities; you cannot use torture or inhumane treatment of prisoners; and certain weapons and tactics are also illegal.
If a country does any of these things, they are committing war crimes.
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What War Crimes are Russia Accused of Committing?
The International Criminal Court has accused Russia, and Putin specifically, of organising the illegal deportation of hundreds of Ukrainian children from Ukraine to Russia.
They allege that Putin has both directly committed war crimes himself, and worked with others to commit further crimes. Moreover, the ICC stated that Putin failed to prevent war crimes taking place by using his presidential powers.
Since the beginning of the conflict, Russia has openly moved thousands of children from their homes in Ukraine. Russia now has policies forcing children to take Russian citizenship without their families permission, and has introduced a fostering system to place children with Russian families.
The Russian commission for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, is also accused of the same crimes. Ms Lvova-Belova has been very open about Russia’s attempts to indoctrinate (perhaps better to say brainwash) Ukrainian children. She has complained that Ukrainian children in Russia speak badly about Putin, and even claimed to adopt a Ukrainian child herself.
Russia initially claimed these were temporary measures taken to protect children, but this has not been the case for many children. They have been put into Russian families, indoctrinated by Russian officials, and separated from their families. According to UN investigators, it has proved difficult for children to remain in contact with their Ukrainian parents.
This is the war crime that the ICC is currently investigating. But will there be more accusations in the future?
Probably. Russia has conducted attacks on Ukraine’s energy system – it is a war crime to attack civilian infrastructure like energy supplies. There have been allegations of torture, sexual violence, and mass killings. Burial sites have been found in areas once controlled by Russia.
A year ago, in March 2022, Russia conducted air strikes on a theatre and hospital in Mariupol – both were being used to house vulnerable people and should not have been targeted by the military under international law.
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Could Vladimir Putin Really be Arrested?
I’ve explained the background and powers of the international court, and briefly described the alleged war crimes committed by Putin and the Russian government. But does any of this actually matter? Will Putin actually be arrested and put on trial?
At the moment it seems very unlikely Putin will be arrested and put on trial anytime soon. This comes back to the limitations of the ICC I discussed earlier. Russia is not a member of the ICC (they signed the treaty but never ratified it) so there is absolutely no risk of him being arrested in Russia. And in any case, he has absolute control of Russia’s police and legal system.
If Putin leaves the country, he could in theory be arrested by that country’s authorities. Would Putin travel to a member of the ICC that would be likely to arrest him? Probably not. In the past year Putin has only visited close allies of Russia (mostly former Soviet Countries) and Iran.
The International Criminal Court also has some legal obstacles. Ukraine and Russia are not members of the ICC and have not ratified the Rome Statute. Countries are supposed to conduct their own criminal proceedings if international crimes occur. The ICC is a court of last resort – it should only act when a state can’t and won’t.
And the ICC will not conduct a trial in absentia. A trial in absentia is when the accused criminal is not present. The ICC will not do this – Putin will need to be present in the Hague for any trial.
The decision to issue an arrest warrant should, however, be seen as a significant event. It sends a clear signal to Russian government officials that in the future they may be prosecuted for their roles in the war. Putin and other senior officials will have their ability to travel internationally, and attend international meetings, severely restricted.
While Putin is unlikely to be arrested right now, it doesn’t mean he will always be safe. A future Russian government could decide to extradite Putin to the ICC. A famous example of this is the former president of Yugoslavia Slobodan Milosevic. He was accused by an International tribunal of committing war crimes in the late 1990s. After a power stuggle in Serbia, and threats from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, he was extradited to the Hague.
So will Putin actually be arrested? Not right now. But we never know what will happen in the future!
This episode has tried to explain the recent arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court. I discussed the role of the ICC, the accusations against Russia and Putin, and finished by talking about the likelihood of Putin actually being arrested.
Hopefully, after listening today, you will be able to better understand and discuss this topic in English!
Do you think Putin will ever be arrested?