Only twice in history has the ICC issued an arrest warrant for a head of state: President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and President Gaddafi of Libya. Both never appeared in court. Al-Bashir was deposed a few years ago, but has not been extradited by the current rulers. Gaddafi was killed in 2011 in the uprisings in his country.
The most concrete consequence of the arrest warrant is that Putin can no longer travel to the 123 countries in the world that have committed themselves to the ICC. In that case, these countries are obliged to arrest Putin and extradite him to The Hague. But they are largely countries that will not be high on Putin’s travel agenda anyway.
Moreover, in many of these countries it is questionable whether they would dare to arrest Putin.
It is therefore mainly a symbolic action, says criminal law expert Geert-Jan Knoops. “It is realized that physically getting hands on Putin is not realistic. And physical presence is required if the process is to take place.”
But it goes further than that, says Joshua Rozenberg, a British colleague of Knoops to the BBC. “The message to Putin is also: you may still be president today, but you may not be president in the future. One day the law will catch up with you.”
That this scenario is not just wishful thinking is clear from the extradition of the former Serbian president Milošević to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in 2001. When the warrant for his arrest was issued in 1999, he still seemed untouchable in his own country. That changed soon after his resignation.
But it is more than just symbolic and futuristic. The court itself indicates that it will now issue the arrest warrant because the war crimes are still taking place every day. The ICC hopes that Russia will now be deterred from continuing to deport Ukrainian children.
‘Only the beginning’
The EU calls the arrest warrant ‘just the beginning’. This is a start to building a case against Putin, says EU foreign affairs coordinator Jospeh Borell. This should ultimately lead to “Russia and its leader being punished for the crimes and atrocities they commit in Ukraine.”
“This makes Putin a pariah,” said Stephen Rapp, former top US adviser. Several countries have since expressed their support for the ICC’s action. France and Canada have unequivocally expressed their support. “No one should be allowed to escape justice,” the French government said. “We stand firmly behind Ukraine,” said Canada’s foreign minister.
The White House responded in broad terms. “We support war criminals being held accountable.”
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