Court in The Hague or the new Nuremberg Tribunal: Where Will Putin Be Tried for His Crimes?

Russia is waging a war against Ukraine which is essentially already World War III, no matter how reluctant the world may be to admit it. Dozens of countries are helping Ukraine with weapons, humanitarian aid and money, and imposing sanctions on Russia. It’s just that the war is going on only on the territory of Ukraine.

The enemy is ignoring all possible rules, wiping cities and villages from the face of the earth, shelling them with artillery fire, dropping bombs on buildings where women and children are hiding. These are crimes for which the Russian leadership will have to answer — in The Hague and beyond.

Why The Hague?

This Dutch city is known primarily for the fact that the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia worked here. At that time, the court sentenced more than 150 participants in the Yugoslav wars from 1991 to 2001. In particular, the tribunal tried former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for crimes against humanity and violations of the laws and customs of war.

And it is in The Hague that the International Criminal Court is now located, which deals with crimes during military conflicts. It started working in 2002 and operates based on the Rome Statute — an international treaty ratified by over 120 countries. 

What crimes can the court consider?

The jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court is limited to three types of crime: genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Russian troops are killing civilians, dropping bombs on hospitals, including maternity hospitals, shooting people trying to leave captured villages and towns, kidnapping and torturing local authorities and activists — all of these are crimes against humanity.

The occupiers bombed the Mariupol Drama Theatre, knowing that children and women were hiding there. They fired on the ambulance on its way to hospital: both the driver and the patient burned alive. They came into the house of a pro-Ukrainian activist and killed him in his wheelchair. This is just part of the vast list of military crimes committed by Russian soldiers.

When will they face punishment?

The International Criminal Court is a long game. Criminals can be sentenced in absentia, and although this does not mean that Putin and other senior Russian officials will be immediately imprisoned, they will become international criminals. And this stigma cannot be easily avoided; it means total and permanent isolation.

What crimes has the court considered in other countries?

Russia is sceptical about the possibility of Putin’s arrest and punishment. Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, apparently thought so when the court issued a warrant for his arrest in 2008 for genocide during the Darfur conflict. The UN estimates that Sudanese government forces killed hundreds of thousands of non-Arab women, men and children.

Omar al-Bashir had been President of Sudan since 1993. It was in 2019 that, as a result of a military coup, he lost power and freedom at the same time. Al-Bashir was accused of killing peaceful protesters, corruption, money laundering and coup. And the Sudanese transitional government agreed to extradite al-Bashir to the International Criminal Court as soon as the former Sudanese president was convicted of corruption and money laundering.

In total, the court in The Hague has started 41 cases and has already handed down 9 convictions. All of them are about wars and conflicts in African countries.

Will Russia be punished for aggression?

Russia has committed another crime by attacking Ukraine, the crime of aggression. However, the court cannot investigate the aggression, as neither Ukraine nor Russia has ratified the Rome Statute, which serves as the basis for the International Criminal Court’s work. The case can also be initiated by the UN Security Council, but Russia will undoubtedly block it.

Ukraine can benefit from global experience and demand the establishment of a special tribunal. What is more, the proposal has already been signed by more than 140 leading scholars, lawyers and politicians, including two former British PMs, Gordon Brown and John Major. Their petition proposes a legal system such as the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals after World War II. The idea of creating a separate tribunal was supported by the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry.

Such a tribunal can be legitimized by the UN General Assembly or the Council of Europe. In both cases, Russia will not be able to block this process.

Is the International Criminal Court already investigating Russia’s crimes?

Investigators from the court are already working in Ukraine. At the request of 39 countries, Prosecutor Karim Khan decided to investigate crimes against humanity and war crimes committed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And on March 16, he personally arrived in Kyiv, which is regularly shelled by the occupying forces.

The court has the right to investigate in Ukraine, as our state recognized the court’s jurisdiction back in 2014 and 2015. Back then, the crimes to be investigated included ones committed during the Revolution of Dignity and in the occupation of Crimea and the war in the east of Ukraine.

The aggressor who wages a war without reason must be punished. Otherwise, others will follow his example. Russia needs to be stopped on the battlefield, beaten with painful economic sanctions and forced to answer for its crimes in court. This is the only way to stop the inferno of war in the world.

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