If there has been a knock on the International Criminal Court (ICC) it’s that it has focussed excessively on developing countries. Of the over 50 individuals the court has indicted, the majority are from Africa.
The court has now issued a warrant for a European and they couldn’t have made a better choice. No minor leader but the head of the largest country on the continent geographically and by population—Russian President Vladimir Putin. And no more fit subject for an arrest warrant could be found anywhere.
Many think Putin’s thuggish behaviour is the result of his background in the KGB. No doubt that organization produced an endless parade of thugs, but Putin’s gangster swagger is the real deal. Since his political birth in St. Petersburg, he has been tight with the Russian mafia. During his time as deputy mayor of that city, he is said to have allowed the mafia to bribe officials and remove enemies with contract killings.
According to a new book by British professor Mark Galeotti, he has tamed the mafia and deploys them in the interests of the state, i.e. his state, which, according to Galeotti, is “the biggest gang in town.”
In an article in The Globe and Mail, Douglas Century refers to Putin as “the most brazen, powerful and wealthy mobster of all time.” Sounds about right to me.
The warrant, however, is not for his civilian crimes. It’s for his war crimes. There is no shortage of them.
His brutal suppression of Chechnya was replete with war crimes, and he is now topping that exercise in terror with his invasion of Ukraine. Recently, as criminals will do, he returned to the scene of one of his greatest crimes of the war, the devastation of the city if Mariupol. His tour apparently took him past Maternity Hospital Number Three which was bombed last March and Theatre Square where bombing killed at least 300 civilians seeking refuge. The assault on Ukraine follows the same pattern of bombing cities into rubble and terrorizing civilians that we saw in Syria and Chechnya.
This is in addition to the suffering caused by adverse effects of the war on the world economy, particularly in developing countries.
Of course no one is going to arrest the leader of a country with a large army and nuclear weapons. In any case, the court has no enforcement arm.
Nonetheless, the court’s action carries moral weight. According to Stephen Rapp, former advisor on genocide to the ICC, “This makes Putin a pariah. If he travels he risks arrest. This never goes away.” If he sets foot in any of the 123 countries that are members of the court, they would have to arrest him. (Unfortunately, a number of major countries, including Russia, China and the U.S., are not members.)
Putin may not be president forever even if it seems that way. It once seemed highly unlikely that the president of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, would ever face justice in an intentional court, but eventually he did.
In the meantime, the warrant makes a powerful statement that even leaders of powerful nations can be held accountable before the world. Whether Putin is ever put on trial or not, this is in itself a step forward for international application of the rule of law.