Putin may never face trial

War crimes and crimes against humanity. Sad images of civilian victims of widespread and systematic war violence in Ukraine are constantly provoking these curses. Politicians, human rights groups and experts are eagerly blaming President Putin and his entourage for these accusations. President Biden even added genocide. But these are mostly political, moral and emotional reproaches. It will be years before international judges can reach such legal and technical conclusions. Meanwhile, no one fears prosecution by the International Criminal Court. Certainly not Putin. International criminal law is known to lag behind reality. Although Western countries prefer Ukraine primarily to misery elsewhere (Syria, Ethiopia, Yemen), current expectations – for example, that Putin will soon appear in The Hague – must be eased.

For example, in the shadow of last week’s call for justice, the specialized criminal division of The Hague appeals court has launched a ‘mega-trial’ on war crimes in Ethiopia. Ethiopian-Dutch Eshetu A. – a former member of the genocidal Derg regime – appealed his previous conviction (2017) for, among other things, the mass murder of 75 people in 1978. After MH17, this is the largest Dutch murder trial ever. with the mass violence that the ICC is investigating a little further in The Hague. But no one cares about that anymore. Too long, too far, too unknown. The same oblivion lurks in the Criminal Court, which so many commentators and activists hope for.


“I am sorry to give you another history lesson,” anthropologist Alex De Waal told the ICC prosecutor last week, before giving his expert testimony about the persecution, extermination and rape of children, women and men in Darfur. The slain, 73-year-old Sudanese Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-Al-Rahman has heard 31 charges against him. The alleged atrocities committed by his Janjaweed militia that he fears occurred between 2003 and 2004. He is only now on trial. There is no longer any interest in these historical atrocities. And so it can happen with Ukraine.

The closer the victims and perpetrators are – and above all: the ‘whiter’ – the more countries are ready to put their words into action.

There were hundreds of thousands of victims in Darfur. The international community – including Russia – also spoke at the time about war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. In 2005, the UN Security Council ordered the ICC prosecutor to investigate crimes with a big drum, but without financial or diplomatic support. Russia is now blocking similar legal intervention in Ukraine, denying ICC prosecutors any access to Russian territory, evidence, witnesses and possible suspects. Although an international investigation into the ‘situation in Ukraine’ has now been circumvented, the scope is therefore significantly limited. So it was in Sudan. It was only after the change of government three years ago that the new rulers sent rare and selective evidence to The Hague.

Not an extra cent

Can the ICC initiate a case quickly? New. First, shabby Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan must be mobilized to gather additional investigators, resources and expertise to build solid cases – and fulfill an acute desire for deterrence and justice. The Netherlands and Canada have already promised Khan to help him with this, in addition to the annual contribution. This is new. In all the ICC cases so far – including Darfur and Libya, which have been brought before the Security Council – no one has given an extra cent. Although this extraordinary support could now bring the criminal process against Ukraine closer, it is at the same time a symbol of the West’s ethical, moral, emotional, political and legal priorities. The closer the victims and perpetrators are – and above all: the ‘whiter’ – the more ready countries are to put their words into action. And so it always went.

Also read: Putin and his followers can be prosecuted here – one day

In 1936, Emperor Haile Selassie called on the League of Nations to prosecute Italian perpetrators of aggression, poison gas attacks and mass killings in Ethiopia (1935-1941). In vain. The Allied military tribunal was immediately brought to Nuremberg to convict Nazi leaders of crimes against peace in Europe. In the 1990s, crimes against European citizens again took precedence. The UN tribunal’s prosecutor for Yugoslavia and Rwanda used all means to try Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic within eight months of his arrest. Théoneste Bagosora – the alleged organizer of the genocide of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis – indifferently held them in custody for six years before finally opening his extremely ill-prepared case in 2002. As with Eshet A. and Abd-Al-Rahman, no one was watching anymore. It will probably be different in the now unlikely case of a Russian case ever coming to The Hague – like Ratko Mladic in the ICTY. Until then, the current urgency and impatience to administer justice in summary proceedings will gradually disappear.

Leave a Comment