The arrest warrant against Putin issued by the International Criminal Court may be symbolic, but it must be the beginning for him to be held accountable

On the occasion of the ninth anniversary of the illegal annexation of Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the occupied Ukrainian peninsula on March 18. His visit came a day after the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant against him.

Putin and his children’s commissioner, Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, face charges related to the alleged illegal deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia. As symbolic as it may be for now, the court order signals a determination against impunity. He points to the enormous scale of the abuses committed by Russian forces and their proxies, for which Putin bears the ultimate responsibility.

The deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia from the occupied Ukrainian territories is clearly in contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention. This deals with the protection of civilians during the war, of which Russia is a part.

Violations of children’s rights have been documented in harrowing detail by the human rights organization Almenda, which until 2014 was based in Crimea and has monitored Russian abuses against children and other vulnerable groups ever since.

Russian violations of international law

Russian abuses in Ukraine extend well beyond the deportation of children and well beyond Crimea. This has been documented in two reports by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on violations of international humanitarian law and human rights in Ukraine. The United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine has also compiled its own investigations. The reports, from October 2022 and March 2023, give an idea of ​​the scale of abuses suffered by civilians since Russia annexed Crimea and occupied parts of Donbas in 2014.

There are clear obligations for the occupying powers under the Hague Regulations on War on Land (1907) and the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949), as well as the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions (1977).

Violations committed by Russia over the course of nine years include making the occupation agreements permanent, rather than temporary. They introduced the Russian ruble as currency and changed the curricula and language of schools to Russian. Russian passports have been imposed on the population and men have been forcibly conscripted into the Russian army.

Russia’s annexations of Crimea in March 2014 and of the Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporiya regions in September 2022 are also illegal under international law.

There is also evidence that Russia has failed to provide even the basic needs – food, water, electricity, sanitation and health care – of the residents who have remained there, another requirement of international law.

Meanwhile, there have been reports of direct abuses against civilians. These abuses range from unlawful killings and kidnappings to torture, sexual violence and forced deportations. Public and private property has been destroyed and people have been denied basic civil rights and political liberties.

The large-scale invasion of February 2022 further intensified the suffering of the civilian population. Russia disregarded the principles of distinction, proportionality and caution when attacking populated areas. They destroyed critical civilian infrastructure and so-called “hazardous materials-containing facilities” such as nuclear power plants.

Since February last year, the treatment of prisoners of war, protected by the third Geneva convention (1949), has been added to the list of Russian violations of international law. This has included the systematic mistreatment of prisoners of war, including torture and sexual violence.

Can Russia be held accountable?

Ukraine has initiated its own efforts to hold individuals accountable through national war crimes trials. But the ICC arrest warrant against Putin indicates a broader front in the fight against impunity. The fact that Russia withdrew in 2016 from the Rome statute that created the court does not mean that the Russian president cannot be tried before it.

Former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević was indicted while still in office, in 1999. He had to appear before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia between 2002 and his death in 2006.

Similarly, the fact that Ukraine is not a signatory to the Rome Statute is irrelevant in this case, as the country has twice exercised its prerogative to accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. In 2015, it granted the court an indefinite right to investigate possible crimes committed on Ukrainian soil after February 20, 2014.

Another option is to prosecute the Russian leadership specifically for the crime of aggression against Ukraine before a special tribunal, created as a hybrid international mechanism to complement the International Criminal Court and internal Ukrainian legal proceedings.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky: the arrest warrant against Putin is a turning point in the war against Russia.
EPA-EFE/Mykola Tys

Other specialized agencies may also hear cases against Russia. The UN Aviation Council agreed to do so on March 17 in the context of the 2014 downing of flight MH17 over Donbas.

There is also the principle of universal jurisdiction. This allows states to prosecute people who are not nationals of their countries for war crimes. Germany, Switzerland and other European countries have used this mechanism to prosecute war crimes committed in the Syrian civil war since 2011.

Beyond accountability

But accountability alone will not even begin to address the suffering of Ukrainians. Helping citizens cope with the trauma they have experienced means creating a local, culturally appropriate response for victims and survivors to organize, identify and advocate for their specific needs. Women and households headed by women will need to be supported. Ultimately, the search for the truth at the local level will be necessary so that people can return to live together safely.

This type of restorative justice will be an essential complement to retributive justice. There are already large numbers of victims and survivors of Russian abuses in Ukrainian-controlled and recently liberated territories. Working with these people is essential for their own sake, but also to constantly improve restorative justice efforts as Ukraine liberates more territory.

Publicizing international support for restorative measures is as important a signal to the people of Ukraine as the fight against impunity for Putin and other Russian war criminals. It is a sign of commitment, not only to the Ukrainian victory, but also to subsequent justice.

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