Despite Biden’s plea, the chances of Putin facing trial are slim

Joseph Dinnage

April 6, 2022

The war in Ukraine has reached a bleak turning point. In recent days, harrowing images and reports have emerged of mass graves and the bodies of murdered Ukrainian civilians, many with their hands bound, lining the streets of Bucha, outside of Kyiv. Sadly, the predictions of many now seem to have come to grim fruition. Russian forces have shown grotesque disregard for human life and, in doing so, have cast international law to the wind.

Tragically, these atrocities adhere to a pattern seen across the country. The besieged port city of Mariupol has also seen some of the worst excesses of Putin’s war, with a reported 5000 civilians being killed in a relentless campaign. Putin’s forces have flagrantly targeted civilian landmarks, laying waste to apartment blocks, a maternity hospital and a theatre which reportedly protected 500 civilians.

Assuming the Kremlin’s allegations that these constitute a Ukrainian false-flag operation are to be taken with a bucket of salt, the case for a war crimes trial is seemingly a sound one. Putin’s army have blown their nose with the Geneva Conventions and consequently should be punished, or so you’d hope.

The International Criminal Court, in cooperation with the United Nations, is responsible for the trial and prosecution of war criminals and, providing the former isn’t having us on, evidence of war crimes in Ukraine is currently being gathered. This evidence dates from 2013 and, according to the ICC’s chief prosecutor, things aren’t looking rosy for Putin and his droogs.

So, the groundwork is in place. President Biden has called for Putin to be tried for war crimes, Zelenskyy has accused Russia of genocide and there is resounding evidence of atrocities having taken place in Bucha. Disappointingly, sturdy institutional foundations are required for action.

A cursory glance at the United Nations’ Twitter page gives an indication of where their priorities lie. Fancy graphics celebrating ‘International Day of Conscience’ and gendered approaches to climate change are abound, but there is scant coverage of Russian butchery in Ukraine. Perhaps I’m being unfair – yesterday, the UN shared a colourful post reminding the world’s tyrants that there are indeed rules to war. Putin must be feeling the heat.

While the UN’s social media presence may not reflect superbly on the organisation, it has done admirable work in the past. It would be remiss not to mention the UN’s role in the post-war trial at Nuremberg and the formation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia following war crimes in Bosnia.

Nonetheless, recent history has not been so kind. The ICC, at one time projected to be the apogee of international law, has shown repeated impotence when it comes to the issues it was founded to tackle. The UN’s 1998 Rome Statute, which brought the court into existence, constitutes a non-binding agreement to which only states can belong (non-state actors go nuts) and as individuals are not tried in absentia, it is up to the state in question to surrender the accused.

In the case of the atrocities in Ukraine, the nature of the treaty makes it extremely difficult for Putin to be brought to the Hague. Russia, while being a signatory of the agreement, is an unratified member, so unless Putin suffers a head injury and elects to turn himself in, it is up to his government to surrender him. Given the reputation of his officials, the latter outcome is about as likely as the former.

Although one shouldn’t speak too soon, the situation in Ukraine is already bearing parallels with many others. A slew of Sudanese leaders involved in committing war crimes in Darfur are still yet to face justice in Holland, despite arrest warrants being delivered against all concerned. The reasons for delay? As mentioned, due to the honour system on which the ICC’s authority is predicated, trials cannot commence until individuals have been “arrested and transferred to the seat of the Court in the Hague”.

Depressing as it may be, the ICC and UN have shown themselves to provide greater barriers to justice than open doors and now act as monuments to a forgotten international order. Despite our desire to see Putin and others face the consequences of their patent war crimes, it would be unwise to hold our breath.


Written by Joseph Dinnage

Joseph Dinnage is Digital Officer at the Institute of Economic Affairs

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