On March 17, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, the commissioner for children’s rights in the Office of the President of the Russian Federation. The warrant charges Putin and Lvova-Belova with war crimes as defined under international law for the unlawful deportation of Ukrainian children from occupied areas to Russia. According to the Ukrainian government, over 16,000 children have been forcibly transferred to Russia since the war began in February 2022.

The ICC’s action comes on the heels of other steps taken by international bodies to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The United Nations General Assembly has passed two resolutions, the first in October 2022 and the second last month, calling on Russia to end hostilities and withdraw its forces. In March 2022, The International Court of Justice (ICJ, also known as the “World Court”) issued a “provisional measure” (the equivalent of a preliminary injunction) ordering Russia to halt the invasion. 

Seen in this context, the ICC’s action marks an historic milestone not only for the ICC as an institution, but for international law more generally.

The contemporary framework of international law took shape after the Second World War with the ratification of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the subsequent amendments, or “protocols,” to the conventions. The post-war period also saw the founding of the United Nations and the World Court as a forum for resolving disputes among nations. The ICC began operations in 2002 as a forum for trying individuals accused of committing war crimes, genocide and other “crimes against humanity.”

Unfortunately, international law is only effective if the great powers of the globe agree to abide by its strictures. Russia has rejected the ICC’s jurisdiction over its military operations in Ukraine, and will never surrender its president or any other officials to the court’s jurisdiction.  In 2016, Russia withdrew from the international treaty that established the court.

Unfortunately, international law is only effective if the great powers of the globe agree to abide by its strictures.

The United States, while eagerly condemning Russian war crimes, is arguably even more hypocritical when it comes to the ICC. The U.S. initially signed the court’s treaty in 2000 but withdrew from it in 2002 over fears that the court would one day charge U.S. soldiers or other personnel with international crimes.

The ICC has been criticized in the past for targeting African human rights violators and overlooking European and U.S. malefactors. But in a historic turnabout, the court opened investigations in 2020 into alleged war crimes committed by the U.S. in Afghanistan and by Israel in Palestine.

The Biden administration lifted Trump-era sanctions against the ICC, but continues to oppose both of the probes into U.S. actions. The administration also has no intention of allowing the U.S. to join the court, as 123 other nations have.

The work of the ICC, the U.N. and the World Court deserve the support of the peace movement in this country and abroad. There is a simple rejoinder to both the leaders of Russia and the U.S. when it comes to facing accountability under international law: If you don’t want to be accused of war crimes, don’t commit them in the first place.

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