On 17 March 2023 the International Criminal Court (ICC), seated in The Hague in the Netherlands, issued an arrest warrant for both Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation (RF), and Ms Maria Alekseevna Lvova-Belova, Commissioner for Children’s Rights in the Office of the President of the RF, concerning the deportation and ‘illegal transfer’ of children from occupied Ukraine.
To be sure, this was just one of numerous alleged war crimes, committed since the massive invasion by Russian armed forces on 24 February 2022. Readers of West England Bylines will recall my article from April 2022 on the terrible atrocities committed in Bucha, near Kyiv. While these and countless other crimes have not been able to be fully investigated during the ongoing war, the case of the deportation of Ukrainian children has already been proven beyond any doubt.
By issuing this verdict, the ICC has made a significant statement, if only of symbolic value. While 123 countries are State Parties to the Rome Statute of the ICC and therefore legally obliged to follow its verdict, neither Russia, Ukraine nor numerous other countries, including the USA, have accepted the ICC’s authority. It remains to be seen whether any of the ICC member countries, if they could do so, would dare to imprison Mr. Putin and transfer him to The Hague to face a trial.
What precedents are there?
There is one prominent case of a former Head of State being arrested and extradited to the ICC: Slobodan Milosevich of Serbia on 31 March 2001. As known, this happened only after NATO member states had militarily intervened in the post-Yugoslav war and forced Serbia to end hostilities. It was only massive US and European pressure which forced the Serbian authorities to arrest and extradite Milosevich later. The ICC could not bring the trial against the former Serbian leader to a conclusion, since Milosevich died of a heart attack in prison on 11 March 2006. Notably this was the only case, in which the ICC got as far as enforcing its principles against such a high ranking suspected war criminal.
One leader who might have faced an ICC trial was of course the Austrian-German Nazi leader, Adolf Hitler. The ‘Führer’ survived many domestic attempts to kill him. One was when the carpenter Johann Georg Elser, in the night of 2 November 1939, planted a bomb in the Bürgerbräukeller beer hall in Munich. Hitler survived, because he left the venue 13 minutes before the bomb exploded, killing eight and injuring many people. The other major attempt on his life was conducted by members of the military on 20 July 1944. Convinced that the war was lost, particularly after the landing of the Western allied forces in France, and that it had to be ended, Count Claus von Stauffenberg planted a bomb in the ‘Wolfsschanze’ (Wolf’s Lair), Hitler’s field headquarters in East Prussia. Yet, the dictator survived the explosion and only came to his end by committing suicide in his underground bunker in Berlin on 30 April 1945, thus escaping justice.
While Hitler’s countless war crimes are beyond any doubt, Josef Stalin’s case is not so clear. Prior to WWII a secret clause of the ‘Molotov-Rippentrop’ or ‘Hitler-Stalin’ pact of 23 August 1939, dividing Eastern Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union, allowed Hitler and Stalin to invade Poland and later the Baltic states and Finland. Soviet historians have always claimed that their armed forces just acted in self-defence but many war crimes were committed in the process.
Within the Soviet Union Stalin’s crimes are more evident. The collectivization of agriculture lead to the ‘Holodomor’, the starving to death of millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s, and the deportation of numerous ethnic groups, like the Tatars from the Crimea in 1944. Stalin never had to face justice; he died in his private villa on 5 March 1953 after having suffered a major stroke four days before.
Another major war criminal of the 20th century was the Cambodian dictator Pol Pot who, after having been arrested, died of a heart attack in his sleep on 15 April 1998.
Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein was also a war criminal. On 22 September 1980 he declared war against revolutionary Iran, a war that lasted eight years and caused a million deaths. Both sides used not only conventional but also chemical weapons and Iraq also used biological weapons. On 16 March 1988 Saddam’s army applied poison gas against the village of Halabja, populated mostly by Iraqi Kurds.
On 2 August 1990 Saddam’s Iraq invaded Kuwait which led to the second Gulf war. US troops intervened and pushed back the Iraqi army, but President George H.W. Bush decided not to topple the dictator in Bagdad. Yet, after ‘9/11’ (the al Qaida attacks against the twin towers in Manhattan and the Pentagon in Washington D.C.) his son President George W. Bush in March 2003 declared another war against Saddam, maintaining that Iraq had obtained weapons of mass destruction. (As the world later learned, there had been no such weapons in Iraq). Britain very much remembers this war, since Prime Minister Blair, against fierce public protest, decided to fully back President Bush Jr. and ordered British troops to join the US. Like NATO’s military intervention in the Balkans wars, the combined US-British attack had no supporting resolution from the United Nations’ Security Council – it was a breach of international law.
On 13 December 2003 US military forces captured Saddam Hussein and transferred him to the newly formed Iraqi leadership, now dominated by the Shiites (the majority population of Iraq, which had been supressed by Saddam). On 30 December 2006 the dictator was publicly hanged, after an Iraqi Special Tribunal had sentenced him to death because of “crimes against humanity”. So Saddam Hussein is a special case of a war criminal actually sentenced to death, albeit not by the ICC. This could only occur because major foreign powers had intervened militarily.
This is also the case with Libya’s Muammar al-Qadafi who was captured and killed on 20 October 2011 by rebel forces after NATO had intervened, transgressing the UN Security Council’s resolution of 1973 which had allowed military force only to protect the civilian population and impose a non-flight zone.
It might well be that these cases of Western powers’ use of force, some in breach of international law, emboldened Russia’s dictator Putin to himself start major military aggressions abroad, particularly his brutal engagement in the Syrian civil war since 2015. The fate of the two Arab dictators – Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s al-Qadafi – possibly led him to actively fight against the NATO countries.
In conclusion, it seems that the chances are pretty low that the war criminal Vladimir Putin will be brought to court. It could only happen after a major ‘regime change’ in Russia and a new leadership trying to mend fences with the civilised world, as in the case of Serbia.
More probably Russia’s dictator will follow most of his prominent predecessors and leave this world without having faced justice.