On 17 March 2023, a special type of warrant of arrest was issued to Vladimir Putin, the President of the Russian Federation. The charges against him concerned the war against Ukraine, as he was accused of deliberately deporting Ukrainian children from the Russian occupied regions of Ukraine and of destroying essential civilian infrastructure, such as power and water supply plants. Similar warrants have been issued to former state leaders and powerful individuals for committing cruel or inhuman acts. However, who exactly has the authority to deliver such warrants to so important personalities? Are they really that effective in action, in a way that they can lead to criminal conviction and imprisonment? And, eventually, what is the role of the so called “International Criminal Court”, in the modern international era?

The creation of the International Criminal Court

In 1998, a diplomatic conference of the United Nations was held in Rome, Italy. Then, 120 Member-States of the organization agreed and signed the constitutional charter of the International Criminal Court (ICC). This particular agreement has been a historical moment for the international community, since it was the first time that the countries decided to accept the jurisdiction of a permanent international court that deals with criminal cases. Its official headquarters are located in the Hague, the Netherlands.

After the signature of the agreement by the political representatives of the countries, it is necessary for the signatory parties to ratify the Convention. In other words, the countries have to accept the agreement with their internal political procedures, such as their Congresses or Parliaments, in order to allow the ICC to begin the trials and investigations. Therefore, the ICC started its official procedures in 2002, when 60 countries ratified the Rome Statute. Today, although 124 states have signed the Rome Statute, the total number of ratifications has remained the same.

The ICC is a permanent independent judicial body, that does not rely on the United Nations for its function. Its expenses are covered by specific financial contributions of the parties, that have signed the Rome Statute. It is important to mention that the Court proceeds with trials only against individuals, not countries, like the International Court of Justice does.

Furthermore, the ICC does not have a universal jurisdiction. It can only prosecute suspects for committing crimes inside the territories of states that have recognized its jurisdiction. This rule means that every country that has not signed or ratified the Rome Statute has no legal obligation to hand over a criminal that is hiding in their territory, or a criminal that has committed those acts inside their territory. However, the ICC has jurisdiction in those cases, if the United Nations Security Council has ordered the prosecution of a specific individual, accused of committing a crime.

The ICC can also start an investigation for a crime committed inside a country that has ratified the Rome Statute, even if this crime was committed by a country that is not a member of the Statute. For example, the United States of America have withdrawn their signature from the Statute and therefore they have rejected the jurisdiction of the ICC to investigate anything in their territory. Nevertheless, Afghanistan has ratified the Rome Statute, and therefore the ICC can start an investigation inside its territory for crimes committed by the US troops during the Afghan War, even if the USA do not approve that.

Moreover, the Court is governed by the principle of complementarity. This means that its jurisdiction is only implemented when the member-states are not able or willing to start the legal procedures to prosecute a suspect. For example, if the individual that should be prosecuted is the governor of an authoritarian regime that controls every aspect of military and political infrastructure of a country and is basically untouchable, the ICC can start its official procedures.

However, which are the crimes which the International Criminal Court has jurisdiction for? As the Rome Statute points out, the ICC deals with “the most serious crimes of the concern to the international community as a whole”. These are the crime of genocide, the crimes against humanity, the war crimes and the crime of aggression. If an individual -and more often a leader- has committed one of those crimes by using his/her position or has contributed by any means to their commitment, the ICC has the legal obligation and right to arrest and try him. Let’s take a more thorough look in those crimes and the elements that define them.


The United Nations Genocide Convention, signed in 1948 defines the crime of genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. It is considered to be one of the most brutal, cruel and inhuman criminal acts that can be committed by any national, political or military leader. These acts include murder, attack of the physical, mental or psychological integrity of a group of people, setting obstacles on births or deliberately preventing any form of recreation of those people and forcibly transferring children to other regions.

All these specific acts can take different forms in real life. Sexual violence, rapes or any other form of sexual exploitation can also be an act of genocide if there is an intention to stigmatize or eradicate a homogenous group of people. Of course, we can point out the same for acts of forced labor and ghettos, practices that where widely used during WWII by the Nazis, in the genocide of Jews. Therefore, the crucial element is the intention to eliminate a homogenous group of people with a common and specific characteristic.

Even though there have been many historically recognized cases of genocides, the ICC has only dealt with one. It is the case of the former Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir, who has been condemned for killing and harming people of a specific target group, during the war in the Darfur region of Sudan, from 2003 to 2008. His acts, among others, were characterized as a genocide by the ICC and led to his arrest and imprisonment.

Crimes against humanity

According to the ICC, the crimes against humanity are the actions committed as a part of a systematic or widespread attack directed against any civilian population. This term is interpreted in a wide manner and includes violent and brutal actions, such as torture, enslavement, forcible transfers of populations, imprisonment, apartheid and many more. Therefore, there is not a specific list of crimes included to this category and, thus, any form of cruelty towards innocent individuals may establish a crime against humanity. For some specialists, even world poverty, human made environmental catastrophes and terrorist attacks are a form of violence that takes part in this specific crime.

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War crimes

It might sound paradoxical, but, yes, even during wars and conflicts, there are specific values and morals that should not be trespassed. Otherwise, we may have a war crime that is punishable by the international community. Hence, it is prohibited by international law to target vulnerable victims, injured soldiers, children, women and prisoners, as well as hospitals and schools. Furthermore, it is forbidden to take war hostages, to unnecessarily destroy civilian property or pillage cities, stores and houses, during an armed conflict.

The United Nations Security Council established two International Criminal Tribunals for two major civil wars, that resulted to severe war crimes and inhuman acts in the past. The first one was the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which was set to examine significant crimes committed during the Yugoslav Civil War. One of his most famous decisions is the life imprisonment of Radovan Karadžić, a former Serbian leader of the Respublika Srpska, a Serbian province of Bosnia. He was sentenced of committing genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, after commanding the massacre of over 8.000 Muslim Bosnians in the region of today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The second special criminal court was the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda, which also dealt with serious occasions of war crimes committed by leaders during the Rwandan Civil War, which was one of the bloodiest in the modern history of humanity.

These two Tribunals contributed significantly to the creation of specific and more accurate definition for the war crimes. In both tribunals the crimes committed included rape, murder, torture and deportation of women and children. As a result, the ICC made clear that any form of sexual violence in a large scale during a conflict can be recognized as a war crime.

Crimes of Aggression

Even though the crimes of aggression were agreed to be the fourth “core” crime of the Rome Statute in 1998, the parties had never agreed on a common definition of them. Therefore, in 2017, it was agreed that a crime of aggression means “the planning, preparation, initiation or execution, by a person in a position effectively to exercise control over or to direct the political or military action of a State”. In other words, when a state leader decides to proceed to war with another country, without being the need to defend itself from an enemy, then the ICC might issue a warrant of arrest to its leader, for committing a crime of aggression. These forms of aggression may include violent annexation, invasion, military occupation as well as blockade of coasts and ports.

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The USA and their relationship with the ICC

The relationship between the United States and the International Criminal Court has been cold and, in some cases, heated. The USA never joined the ICC and has consistently opposed the idea of an international court that would have the jurisdiction to perform trials against politicians and leaders. Even though the Clinton administration during the 1990s had been open to negotiations and signed the Rome Statute, this was never ratified by the country. A few years later, the George W. Bush administration withdrew the signature of the previous president and clarified that the US would not join the Rome Statute and would not recognize the jurisdiction of the ICC.

But why this obsessive opposition over this innovative judicial concept? The answer relies on the past decisions made by the US governments and more particularly of their military engagement in the Middle East. The ICC announced that it might start a formal investigation into possible war crimes committed in Afghanistan during the past 15 years, possibly including American soldiers, who may have been torturing detainees in the country. That is why the George W. Bush administration decided to withdraw the signature of the USA from the Rome Statute and started bilateral agreements with other countries in order to ensure that their soldiers would never be prosecuted by the ICC officials, under international law.

However, as previously said, since Afghanistan is party of the Rome Statute, the ICC has the jurisdiction to prosecute American soldiers who committed crimes in the Afghan territory, even though the US is not a member-state of the ICC. Hence, in 2016, the Donald Trump administration imposed heavy sanctions to the ICC officials and their families, such as visa restrictions, claiming that the ICC’s intention to investigate without the US approval violates their national sovereignty.

Although President Joe Biden lifted the imposed sanctions, the relations between the two sides remain cold and distant. The defending position that the USA show, reveals that the country probably fears the prosecution of its soldiers and military officials. Their conviction would be far stricter under international law and the US Presidents are aware of that. Thus, their thesis proves the power and influence that the ICC is gaining the recent years.

The Warrant against Vladimir Putin

The Pre-Trial Chamber II of the ICC has issued two warrants of arrest for both the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and for Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, the presidential commissioner for Children’s Rights in Russia. The basic allegation for both is the forced transfer and possible kidnapping of Ukrainian children in the Russian occupied regions of Ukraine. Under Article 8 of the Rome Statute, this is a war crime that enables the ICC to arrest the responsible leader and proceed to a trial, even though Russia has already withdrawn its signature from the agreement.

Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov has characterized the arrest warrant
“outrageous and unacceptable”. Putin has also declared that he does not really care about it, basically presenting himself as an untouchable leader. However, is he really untouchable? What does this warrant mean for himself and for the rest of the parties of the agreement?

According to the President of the ICC, Piotr Hofmański, all the member-states of the Rome Statute have the legal obligation to aid the arrest of the prosecuted individuals. Therefore, this means that if Vladimir Putin leaves Russia and visits any other member state for any diplomatic or personal reason, this state should arrest him.

Nevertheless, the reality is much more different, as the legal obligations of the countries may depend on their diplomatic relationships with Russia. For example, in 2023, South Africa, a party of the Rome Statute, announced that it would provide diplomatic immunity to Vladimir Putin, so that they could attend the 15th BRICS Summit, even though it is obliged to arrest him. Other member-states of the agreement might make to similar choices in order not to deteriorate their diplomatic ties with the superpower.

In conclusion, the International Criminal Court is an innovative initiative for the international community and can contribute tremendously to major crimes, that, under other circumstances, would never be punished. However, its jurisdiction remains under the umbrella of international law, which means that requires the voluntary participation of every member-state. Therefore, the countries are free to choose the diplomatic route and not engage with the strict procedures of the ICC. In other words, they can easily “change their minds”, in terms of their national interests, which might occasionally result in worst consequences for world peace and justice. Thus, even though the ICC has proven its influence and power in the world, it is getting even more weakened, as more and more countries -especially African- decide to withdraw their signature from the agreement. At the same time, the world superpowers deny their submission to its jurisdiction and prefer other ways of solving their problems. In any case, we should all understand that without global cooperation, the ICC cannot function they way it should do.

Author: Γιώργος Λυμπέρης

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