The (Ukrainian) kids aren’t alright: The ICC issues historic arrest warrant for Putin’s war crimes on Ukrainian children

Photo by: Charlie Martin

On March 17, The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants indicting the president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, for alleged war crimes committed in the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

The ICC announced arrest warrants for Russian president Vladimir Putin and Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, the Commissioner for Children’s Rights for the Russian Federation, in light of evidence pointing that both actors are allegedly liable for the mass deportation of Ukrainian children to the Russian Federation. According to Piotr Hofmański, the president of the ICC, the protection of children is of great importance to international law and security.

“It is forbidden by international law for occupied powers to transfer civilians from the territory they live into other territories…The ICC attaches great importance to the protection of victims, especially children.”

As for violations of international legal mechanisms that led to the issuing of arrest warrants against Putin and Lvova-Belova, the ICC argues that said Russian Federation officials violated various sections of the Rome Statute and the Geneva Conventions. In particular, section eight of the Rome Statute, which gives the ICC jurisdiction over war crimes, describes in subsection 2 (a)(vii) that “unlawful deportation” or “unlawful confinement” constitutes a war crime. 

In short, the ICC believes that there is reasonable evidence that Putin, as well as other officials, have allowed the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children to the Russian Federation to occur, which makes grounds for a war crime.

The deportation of Ukrainian children

According to Human Rights Watch, amidst the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, several thousand Ukrainian children have been illegally taken from Ukraine to the Russian Federation. In support of the ICC’s arrest warrants, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky clarified that over 16,000 cases of Ukrainian children unlawfully deported at the hands of Russian forces have been reported.

Throughout the conflict, Ukrainian children have been put in traumatic circumstances such as family separation and their Ukrainian identity being stripped from them. With Russia adopting a decree in 2022 to give Russian nationality to Ukrainian children, this has freely allowed for the unlawful adoption of Ukrainian children in Russia. International law prohibits the evacuation of children to a foreign state during global conflicts, as highlighted in article 78 of the Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions. In seeing the deliberate effort from the Russian Federation to circumvent international law to strip Ukrainian children from their national identity, the ICC’s decision to determine Putin and Lvova-Belova as guilty of war crimes is to be applauded.

Defining the power of the ICC

The main question that may arise from the ICC’s arrest warrants is whether or not they have any enforceable mechanisms.

The ICC has been active since 2002 to prosecute crimes of aggression, including war crimes, and its jurisdiction allows for prosecuting crimes committed within their member states’ territories. Although neither Russia nor Ukraine has joined as a state party of the ICC, the court opened an investigation in Ukraine in 2022 based on the “referrals” of 43 member states to do so. Since then, the ICC has gained jurisdiction over Ukraine to investigate and prosecute crimes committed in its territory, which allowed the ICC to issue Putin’s arrest warrants.

Despite the ICC striving towards prosecuting President Vladimir Putin over a series of war crimes, it is improbable that the President of the Russian Federation will be arrested and taken to the ICC. The main issue revolves around the fact that the ICC has no feasible enforcement mechanisms, meaning that member states of the ICC are single handedly responsible for arresting individuals who have received ICC arrest warrants. Not only will ICC member states be fearful of attempting to capture the President of Russia, but Putin himself will likely avoid travelling outside Russia in case any member state is bold enough to arrest him. 

For the time being, the arrest warrants against President Vladimir Putin merely serve a symbolic function for an international community that is intolerant of the atrocities caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Despite not having a police force to enforce its mandate or warrants, the impact of the ICC should not be undermined. If anything, the ICC’s decision to condemn the war crimes against Ukraine perpetuated by Russia can hopefully motivate the international community to deem the ICC a vital force for peacekeeping and justice.

Is it foolish to believe that the ICC’s arrest warrants against Putin will single-handedly lead all states to turn their back on Russia? Absolutely. Although there is the hope that the ICC’s decision will lead states to condemn Russia’s actions, Russia’s influence among fellow non-Western states is undeniable. As it appears now, Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Vladimir Putin in Russia from March 20 to 22 to discuss the situation between Russia and Ukraine. Although, on paper, the Chinese government wishes to mediate between Russia and Ukraine, some may believe that the visit may have ulterior motives of support for Vladimir Putin and the Russian invasion.

It would be unrealistic to expect all states, especially allied non-Western powers, to condemn Russia’s war crimes. Nonetheless, justice advocates and those supporting Ukraine should remain optimistic about the influence of the ICC’s arrest warrants against Putin. 

At the very least, the ICC’s brave condemnation of Putin’s war crimes will foster interest in strengthening the ICC’s enforcement mechanisms for the prosecution of war crimes, as well as leading to the possibility that the ICC will claim genocide has occurred in the context of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. 

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