By Erin Viner
“It is really a very sad occasion and a very somber occasion, that for the first time ever, judges of the International Criminal Court, of any court, have felt it necessary to issue warrants against a leader and senior state officials from a permanent member of the (United Nations) Security Council,” Khan said at a meeting of international justice ministers in London today.
The ICC issued the warrant based on war crime charges that Russia has illegally deported thousands of children from Ukraine. Moscow never concealed the transfer since the start of what it calls a “special military operation” in the neighboring country, instead insisting it as a humanitarian campaign to protect orphans and children abandoned in the conflict zone.
“The crimes were allegedly committed in Ukrainian occupied territory at least from 24 February 2022. There are reasonable grounds to believe that Mr. Putin bears individual criminal responsibility for the aforementioned crimes,” said an ICC statement.
The court also issued a warrant for Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s Commissioner for Children’s Rights, on the same charges.
“I say repatriate the children, return the children, reunite the children,” said the ICC Chief Prosecutor, stressing “If there is any semblance of truth to the utterances that this is for the sake of children, instead of giving them a foreign passport, return them to the countries of their nationality.”
Ukraine says more than 16,000 children have been illegally transferred to Russia or Russian-occupied territories since the war started nearly 13 months ago, while launching investigations into more than 72,000 incidents of alleged war crimes.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed the “historic decision which will lead to historic accountability. The head of the terrorist state and another official have officially become suspects in a war crimes case.” He added that, “to part children from their families, to prevent them from contacting their relatives, to hide children on the territory of Russia, to disseminate them around far-flung regions is clearly state policy of Russia, state decisions and state evil, which starts precisely with the top official of this state.”
Applauding the ICC, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba stated that the “wheels of justice are turning” to hold the “criminals” Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova “accountable for stealing children and other international crimes.”
Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov slammed the ICC decision as “outrageous and unacceptable” and declared it “null and void” since the Russian Federation does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction.
Moscow is not a party to the Rome Statute upon which the ICC is founded – meaning the warrant has no legal force in Russia itself. It does, however, mandated that the court’s 123 member states arrest Putin and transfer him to The Hague for trial if he sets foot on their territory.
Even Russia refuses extradition of its citizens and Putin is unlikely to risk travel to any ICC member countries, the warrant issued against a serving president serves as an important move to assign responsibility for the consequences of his invasion of Ukraine.
As a non-signatory to the Rome Statute, ICC decisions “have no meaning for our country, including from a legal point of view” and therefore “bears no obligations under it,” asserted Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, while questioning why “taking care of children, saving them and helping them would become a criminal offense.”
“”Yankees, hands off Putin!” Russia Parliament Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin wrote on Telegram, labeling the move as evidence of Western “hysteria” while stressing, “We regard any attacks on the President of the Russian Federation as aggression against our country.”
Russia’s top investigative body retaliated today in symbolic gesture of defiance by opening a criminal case against the ICC Prosecutor Khan, as well as the judges who issued the warrant, Tomoko Akane, Rosario Salvatore Aitala and Sergio Gerardo Ugalde Godinez.
“The criminal prosecution is obviously illegal, since there are no grounds for criminal liability,” said the Russian statement.
The incriminated Commissioner Lvova-Belova was cited by the Ria Novosti News Agency as saying, “It’s great that the international community has appreciated this work to help the children of our country: that we don’t leave them in war zones, that we take them out, that we create good conditions for them, that we surround them with loving, caring people.”
Response from world officials was largely supportive of the development.
“He’s clearly committed war crimes,” United States President Joe Biden told reporters, referring to Putin, adding that the decision was “justified” and “makes a very strong point.”
In a separate statement, the US State Department said, “there is no doubt that Russia is committing war crimes and atrocities (in) Ukraine, and we have been clear that those responsible must be held accountable.”
Calling the warrant for Putin “the start of the process of accountability” for “the war crime of unlawful deportation and transfer of children from Ukraine to Russia,” High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell emphasized, “We appreciate and support ICC’s work. There can be no impunity.”
By contrast, Moscow’s stalwart ally Beijing has accused the ICC of exercising double standards.
Chinese President Xi Jinping today became the first national leader to shake Putin’s hand since issuance of the warrant during a visit to Russia.