What does the ICC arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin mean in reality?

What is the international criminal court arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin for?

The court has issued arrest warrants for the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, in relation to the forced deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia, where many have been adopted by Russian families.

Forced deportation of populations is recognised as a crime under the Rome statute that established the court. Russia was a signatory to the Rome statute, but withdrew in 2016, saying it did not recognise the jurisdiction of the court.

Although Ukraine is itself not a signatory to the court in The Hague, it granted the ICC jurisdiction to investigate war crimes committed on its territory.

Four visits by the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, over the past year have led to a ruling that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that Mr Putin bears individual criminal responsibility” for the child abductions.

What does that mean in reality?

Because Russia does not recognise the court and does not extradite its citizens, it is highly unlikely that Putin or Lvova-Belova will be surrendered to the court’s jurisdiction any time soon.

But the issuing of the warrant remains a highly significant moment for a number of reasons. It sends a signal to senior Russian officials – military and civilian – who may be vulnerable to prosecution either now or in the future and would further limit their ability to travel internationally, including to attend international forums.

Don’t serving heads of government enjoy immunity?

While the ICC does not recognise immunity for heads of state in cases involving war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide, in an important precedent, South Africa declined to enforce an ICC warrant for the arrest of the Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir during a visit in 2015.

Pretoria argued that it saw “no duty under international law and the Rome statute to arrest a serving head of state of a [ICC] non-state-party such as Omar al-Bashir”, and several other countries that he visited also declined to arrest him.

The arrest of the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London in 1998 on an international warrant issued by the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón illustrates the difficulties involved in such immunity issues.

Pinochet claimed immunity as a former head of state – a claim rejected by the British courts – but ultimately, the British home secretary, Jack Straw, allowed Pinochet to return home on grounds of ill health.

So what is the point of this?

While Putin seems secure in his power now and safe from extradition, a future Kremlin leader may decide it is more politic to send him to The Hague than to protect him.

A good example is Slobodan Milošević, the former president of Yugoslavia, who was indicted on a series of war crimes charges by the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the midst of the war in Kosovo in 1999.

In 2001, amid a struggle between key opposing figures in Serbia after Milošević’s fall from power, the prime minister, Zoran Djindjić, ignored a court ruling banning the extradition and ordered the transfer of Milošević to The Hague, saying: “Any other solution except cooperation [with The Hague] would lead the country to disaster.”

Milošević’s arrest – preceding his transfer – followed pressure on the Yugoslav government to detain the former president or risk losing substantial US economic aid and loans from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Are other warrants likely to follow?

The judge added that the prosecutor could form cases of new allegations against Putin, thus expanding the warrants.

Human Rights Watch described the decision to issue an arrest warrant for Putin as a “wake-up call to others committing abuses or covering them up”.

Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at the NGO, said: “With these arrest warrants, the ICC has made Putin a wanted man and taken its first step to end the impunity that has emboldened perpetrators in Russia’s war against Ukraine for far too long.”