The International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued an arrest warrant for Russia’s president over the invasion of Ukraine, but few in Moscow or beyond expect Vladimir Putin to be led away in handcuffs anytime soon.
The warrant issued on Friday relates to Putin’s alleged involvement in the deportation of thousands of children from Ukraine to Russia. Another was issued for Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights.
News of the warrants brought cheers from Ukraine and derision from Moscow. Russia is not among the 123 countries that have signed on to the ICC, making such warrants “null and void” within its borders, said Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.
But if Putin were to set foot in any of those other countries, they’d have to arrest him, said Payam Akhavan, a senior fellow at the University of Toronto’s Massey College and an adviser on genocide to the ICC prosecutor. He’d then be sent to The Hague for trial.
That might sound like a long shot, but stranger things have happened. The idea that former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic would face international justice — in front of a United Nations tribunal — for war crimes once seemed unlikely, said Akhavan, but eventually “that came to pass.”
“Those who are in power today may not be in power tomorrow,” Akhavan told CBC News.
So what does the warrant mean for the leader of the world’s largest country?
Who is part of the ICC?
Canada is among the countries to have ratified the ICC’s foundational Rome Statute. Many others have not, including key members of the UN Security Council — the U.S., China and Russia — and major G20 nations such as India, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Turkey.
Most of the countries in Europe and South America have signed on, as have Australia, New Zealand, Japan and much of Africa.
What can the ICC do?
The ICC has jurisdiction over four types of crimes: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes of aggression.
However, with no armed body to enforce its warrants, the ICC has minimal power to arrest people and instead must rely on the security forces of member states.
Since its launch in 2002, the court has issued arrest warrants for three sitting world leaders: Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi and now Putin. None have stood trial. (Gadhafi died and al-Bashir remains at large.)
Another Moscow resident, who gave his name only as Daniil, 20, scoffed at the warrant.
“Putin! Nobody will arrest him. Rather, he will arrest everyone,” he told Reuters.
What is the court’s prosecution record?
With more than 900 staff members and an annual budget of nearly $250 million, 31 cases have gone before the International Criminal Court.
Its judges have issued 38 arrest warrants, according to the ICC’s website. Twenty-one of those have led to a suspect being arrested by a member state and held in the court’s detention centre.
The court has issued 10 convictions and four acquittals.
Has it secured any big convictions?
Most of the people who have been tried, convicted and jailed by the court hail from Africa.
Dominic Ongwen, a former commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army, an insurgency group in Uganda infamous for using child soldiers, is serving a 25-year sentence for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The first person convicted by the ICC, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, was sentenced to 14 years in prison over his role in commanding rebel forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo which committed atrocities.
<a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/ICC?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#ICC</a> President Judge Piotr Hofmański on recent arrest warrants against Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova in the context of the situation in <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Ukraine?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Ukraine</a><br>More info: <a href=”https://t.co/5OMC7Xuuy5″>https://t.co/5OMC7Xuuy5</a> <a href=”https://t.co/45bT4mHqIs”>pic.twitter.com/45bT4mHqIs</a>
Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a member of Ansar Dine, an Islamist militia in Mali, served seven years for the war crime of attacking religious and historical buildings in the city of Timbuktu.
In other cases, the suspects remain at large including Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and Russian government official Mikhail Mayramovich Mindzaev, who is wanted for war crimes against civilians in Georgia.
Saif Gadhafi, the son of the former Libyan leader, is also wanted by the ICC and is considered a fugitive.
What happens next?
While an arrest might be unlikely, the warrant will make diplomatic and business endeavours more difficult for Putin and his allies, according to a former U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crime issues.
“This makes Putin a pariah,” said Stephen Rapp, who held the position during Barack Obama’s presidency. “If he travels he risks arrest. This never goes away.”
Some hope that, by issuing the warrant, the ICC and other international bodies are eyeing other larger, legal pursuits — though they doubt anything will happen quickly.
“It is essential for the international community to dig in for the long term and to send a clear message that they will not sweep these crimes under the carpet and that the perpetrators will be pursued and will one day be brought to justice,” Akhavan, the law professor, said.
“The important point to remember is that the arrest warrant is only the beginning.”