(Paris) The International Criminal Court (ICC) intends to open two war crimes cases linked to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and to seek arrest warrants for several people, according to officials, current and former, who were aware of the decision, but who were not authorized to speak publicly.
These files represent the first international charges brought since the beginning of the conflict and follow months of work by special investigation teams. They claim that Russia abducted Ukrainian children and teenagers and sent them to Russian re-education camps, and that the Kremlin deliberately targeted civilian infrastructure.
Attorney General Karim Khan must first present his charges to a panel of judges who will decide whether legal standards are met to issue arrest warrants or whether investigators need more evidence.
It was not specified who the court planned to charge in each case. Asked to confirm requests for arrest warrants, the prosecutor’s office said, “We are not publicly discussing details related to ongoing investigations. »
Some diplomats and outside experts have said that it is possible that the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, could be indicted, because the Court does not recognize immunity to a head of state in cases of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide.
The Kremlin has denied the war crimes charges, but international and Ukrainian investigators have gathered compelling evidence of a range of atrocities committed since the early days of the invasion.
The first case, according to the informed officials, concerns the abduction of Ukrainian children, from toddlers to teenagers, which has been widely publicized. Under a Kremlin-backed program, they were abducted from Ukraine and placed in foster homes to become Russian citizens or sent to summer camps for re-education, as The New York Times and researchers. Some came from orphanages or foster homes.
Moscow has made no secret of its program, presenting it as a humanitarian mission aimed at protecting orphaned or abandoned Ukrainian children from war.
Russian Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova, the programme’s public face, began sending children to Russia weeks after the invasion began in February 2022 and appeared regularly on television to promote adoptions. In May, Mr. Putin signed a decree aimed at accelerating Ukrainians’ access to Russian citizenship.
Mr. Khan has publicly indicated his intention to pursue the case, saying that the illegal transfers of children to Russia or to occupied parts of Ukraine are a priority for his investigators.
Earlier this month, he visited a now-empty children’s home in southern Ukraine, and his office released a photo of him amidst empty beds.
“Children cannot be treated as spoils of war,” he said in a statement following his visit.
A February report by Yale University and the US State Department’s Conflict Observatory program indicates that at least 6,000 Ukrainian children are being held in 43 camps in Russia, with the actual number possibly higher. The National Information Office of the Ukrainian government said that at the beginning of March the number of children could be more than 16,000.
“This issue has received a great deal of attention and to consider it a crime will elicit many reactions,” said Mark Ellis, chief executive of the International Bar Association. “It is prohibited to forcibly transfer civilians across a border and, during a conflict, it can constitute a war crime. It can also be crimes against humanity if it is a widespread and systematic policy. The deportation of children may even be part of genocidal intent. »
In the second case, the ICC attorney general is expected to look into Russia’s relentless attacks on civilian infrastructure, including water supplies and power and gas plants, which are far from the fighting and not considered legitimate military targets.
The U.S. government has evidence that highlights Kremlin decisions to deliberately target vital civilian infrastructure, and many in the Biden administration would favor this evidence being released to the court, although the U.S. are not members. However, the Department of Defense is opposed to this information being released, because it fears setting a precedent that could pave the way for legal action against Americans.
President Joe Biden has yet to decide whether or not to approve the release of this information, officials say.
In the past, judges at the International Criminal Court have taken several months to consider charges before issuing arrest warrants or subpoenas. But the devastation in Ukraine has put the court under pressure to act quickly.
More than 40 States Parties to the Court have requested his intervention. Ukraine itself is not an official member, but it has granted the Court jurisdiction over its territory.
The Ukrainian government is currently holding its own war crimes trials, and a host of other international bodies are also investigating.
But the question of whether cases against Russia will ever end up in a courtroom hovers above these investigations.
In recent weeks, a group of governments and international organizations have intensified discussions about the need for a separate international court with the power to prosecute Russia for the crime of aggression, over which the ICC has no jurisdiction. The Court can only hold individuals, even leaders, accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in this case.
But supporters of a new court argue that assault is the supreme crime from which all others flow. It is effective because it speaks most directly to the political or military leaders who decide to go to war.
Nevertheless, Western governments believe that the ICC has a role to play and that it must act. Issuing an arrest warrant, even if it is not executed, is symbolically important, as it can make someone an outcast, since these charges do not go away, according to legal experts.