The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant Friday for Russian President Vladimir Putin and an official in his office responsible for children’s rights because of their alleged involvement in the unlawful deportation and transfer of Ukrainian children from occupied areas of Ukraine to Russia.
The ICC, which is based in The Hague, Netherlands, alleges Putin and Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova are responsible for war crimes.
Ukraine has already arrested and convicted some Russian soldiers, all of them low-ranking, for war crimes in Ukraine. The ICC’s arrest warrant for Putin and Lvova-Belova marks the international court’s first arrest warrant since Russia invaded Ukraine. Moscow has repeatedly denied allegations of war crimes in Ukraine.
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The ICC did not provide any details about the number of cases or children the allegations refer to, citing the need to protect victims and witnesses and to “safeguard” the ongoing investigation. It said it was making the arrest warrants public because it believed doing so could prevent the “further commission of crimes.”
“There are reasonable grounds to believe that Mr. Putin bears individual criminal responsibility for the aforementioned crimes … for having committed the acts directly, jointly with others and/or through others … and for his failure to exercise control properly over civilian and military subordinates who committed the acts, or allowed for their commission, and who were under his effective authority and control, pursuant to superior responsibility,” the ICC said in a statement.
David Scheffer, the first U.S. Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues, said the charges are significant for both the war in Ukraine and for the global geopolitical stage.
“This is not the first time the ICC has indicted or issued an arrest warrant for a head of state. It did so before with Bashir in Sudan and with Qaddafi in Libya,” he said, referring to Omar al-Bashir, former President of Sudan and Muammar al-Qaddafi, Libya’s former leader. “Henceforth, Putin will always be described as not only the President of Russia but as an indicted fugitive of the International Criminal Court as a war criminal.”
Scheffer, who is now the director emeritus of the Center for International Human Rights at Northwestern University’s law school, said there’s no statute of limitations on the war crimes which Putin’s charged with.
Since the start of the war, Lvova-Belova, Putin’s presidential commissioner for children’s rights, has been the public face of one of the most distressing consequences of Russia’s year-long war in Ukraine: The deportation, including by coercion and force, of potentially tens of thousands of Ukrainian children without their families.
War crimes experts said that while Lvova-Belova might seem to be a surprise choice as only the second person to be charged by the ICC, her symbolic value to the war crimes prosecution effort cannot be understated.
“Frankly, given her central role in the commission of the war crime of forced deportation of children to Russia, she is an exceptionally logical individual for indictment by the ICC,” Scheffer said. “She is the person who implements both in a leadership and then in an administrative fashion, the war crime. So there’s no way of avoiding her culpability, and she has been very public about it. Both Putin and she have incriminated themselves publicly.”
The only conflict comparable to the situation in Ukraine has been World War II, when about 200,000 Polish children were taken to Germany by the Nazis under Heinrich Himmler’s notorious “Germanization program,” said Michael Scharf, the dean of the Case Western Reserve University School of Law, who is a human rights lawyer who tries cases at the ICC.
At the ICC, there is no immunity for officials, including sitting leaders such as Putin, according to Nigel Povoas, senior prosecutor with the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group investigating alleged war crimes in Ukraine. He said that a head of state can be arrested but the ICC does not have its own internal enforcement mechanism, so it is reliant on ICC member states to make the actual arrests.
Povoas noted that Sudan’s Bashir was able to travel to 14 countries who did not arrest him. He was eventually handed over to the ICC by his own country after he was ousted from power.
He added that the evidence against Putin has only been examined by an ICC judge and that confirmation of the charges he’s likely to face “won’t see the light of day” until if and when he’s arrested.
“Putin is highly unlikely to be arrested whilst he remains in power. Nor can there be trials in absentia,” he said. “So the strength or nature of the evidence will remain unknown and untested (except by an ICC judge) for the foreseeable future.”