The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin for the war crime of deporting children from Ukraine to Russia.
Pre-trial judges of The Hague-based International Criminal Court said the Russian president was “allegedly responsible” for the forced transfer of children from occupied areas of Ukraine to Russia during the two countries’ conflict, which has been documented by human rights groups.
The warrant and a second for Russia’s children’s commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova, also over the removal of children, are the first to be issued by the ICC over the Ukraine war.
Human rights groups have said thousands of children have been taken to Russia since Moscow’s full-scale invasion last year, while Ukraine on Friday said more than 16,000 such incidents were under investigation. The ICC did not specify the number of children unlawfully transferred.
“There are reasonable grounds to believe that Mr Putin bears individual criminal responsibility for the aforementioned crimes,” the ICC judges said in a statement on Friday.
The ICC’s prosecutor Karim Khan had opened an investigation into alleged war crimes by Russian forces in Ukraine soon after Moscow began its invasion last year. The warrant means Putin could be arrested if he travels to any country that is part of the ICC.
Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy described the arrest warrants as “a historic decision, from which historical responsibility will begin” for war crimes allegedly committed by Russia.
“Separating children from their families, depriving them of any opportunity to contact their relatives, hiding children on the territory of Russia, scattering them in remote regions — all this is an obvious state policy of Russia, state decisions and state evil,” Zelenskyy said.
Russia’s foreign ministry played down the impact of the warrants. “Russia is not a party to the Rome Statute of the ICC and has no obligations under it,” said the ministry’s spokesperson Maria Zakharova. “Russia is not co-operating with this body, and possible arrest ‘recipes’, issued by the ICC, are legally null and void for us.”
Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev echoed her remarks, writing on Twitter that there was “no need to explain WHERE this paper should be used” and adding a toilet paper emoji.
Russia has denied its troops have conducted war crimes or atrocities against civilians during the conflict. Instead, Moscow has accused Kyiv of staging evidence and blamed Ukraine’s soldiers for some atrocities.
On the removal of children, Lvova-Belova was quoted in Russia’s RBC newspaper as saying: “It is great that the international community appreciated our work to help the children of our country.
“We do not leave them in the war zone, we take them out to ensure good condition, we surround them with loving caring people.”
ICC president Judge Piotr Hofmański said in a video statement: “It is forbidden according to international law for occupying powers to transfer civilians from the territory they live in to other territories, and children are under special protection.”
“The contents of the warrants are secret in order to protect victims,” Hofmański added. “Nevertheless, the judges of the chamber, in this case, decided to make the existence of the warrants public in the interests of justice, and to prevent the commission of future crimes.”
The judges had analysed the evidence and believed “there are credible allegations against these persons”, he said. But the execution of those warrants “depends on international co-operation”, he added.
The Hague-based ICC was established in 1998 to investigate war crimes and genocide. It has jurisdiction in countries that have signed its founding document, the Rome Statute. Russia is not a signatory, and neither are China, India or the US.
Ukraine is also not a member of the ICC but has recognised the court’s jurisdiction over events occurring in the country since 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula.
Thomas Garner, extradition lawyer at UK law firm Fladgate, said: “The issuance of an arrest warrant by the ICC is symbolically significant for the international community but is unlikely to lead to a prosecution . . . The ICC lacks the teeth to enforce the warrant unless Putin voluntarily submits to its jurisdiction or travels to a state prepared to arrest him.”
The ICC does not have its own police force and relies on national authorities to arrest and deliver the suspects for which it has issued warrants. If arrested, a suspect is brought to the ICC detention centre in The Hague, and a trial begins.
The ICC has issued 38 arrest warrants in its three-decade history, leading to 21 detentions. There have been 10 convictions after trial.