With the ICC issuing an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin, how likely is he to ever appear in a courtroom?
A few weeks ago I sat in the US State Department with President Joe BidenAmbassador of Global Criminal Justice.
Beth Van Schaack is the woman the president has tasked with prosecuting the Russian leader to the dock.
I asked him: “Many will see that it is inconceivable that Vladimir Poutine could be tried for war crimes. How important is it to pursue justice, however unlikely that may be?”
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“Well…” she said, disagreeing with the premise of my question… “Augusto Pinochet, Slobodan Milosevic, Hissène Habré from Chad? I don’t think any of these men thought they would ever see the interior of a courtroom and each of them made…
“We have to play a long game here. You never know how situations will change.
“And as long as you’ve collected evidence, produced files on people responsible, you can stand ready until a court somewhere in the world is able to suddenly assert jurisdiction, and then prosecutors come around. will move.”
A global effort for justice
Ms. Van Schaack heads the United States Office of Global Criminal Justice. His job is to advise the Secretary of State (Antony Blinken) and other leaders in the United States on issues of justice and accountability.
His team worked with prosecutors and human rights organizations around the world to investigate and gather evidence from Ukraine, building a case against Russian individuals leading all the way to Mr. Putin himself. even.
“We have now seen war crimes committed on a systemic basis in all areas where Russian troops are deployed; horrifying, credible stories, corroborated by a UN Board of Inquiry and others, of civilians deliberately targeted with the use of disproportionate force, civilians being killed in Russian custody, prisoners of war killed, and then efforts to cover up these crimes…” she told me.
“We saw satellite images and other images, even just taken by ordinary CCTV cameras, of people lying in front yards with their hands tied behind their backs, clear evidence of torture or summary execution-style killings. .
“There are also the attacks on a theatre, on a train station of people fleeing the conflict. You have attacks on ordinary convoys of civilians trying to get out; people who are just going to work, carrying grocery bags with their errands strewn around the corpse….”
She continued: “These images stick in your head. They are burning, burning images, and all are now being collected by the Attorney General, but other investigative organizations including the United Nations Commission of Inquiry, the International Criminal Court and European prosecutors increasingly united around the imperative of justice.”
Join the dots
Ambassador Van Schaack explained that the crimes can be linked and lines are drawn to show that there are reasonable grounds to believe that Mr. Putin was, by his authority, responsible for these crimes.
“We have to connect the crimes we see on the ground – of which we have very clear digital evidence – with these and in a position of command and control.
“So go up the chain of command – who ordered these breaches? Who allowed them to be committed? .”
Regarding the likelihood of an arrest of officials around President Putin, she said: “I think what motivates everyone in this area is the idea that one day circumstances will change.
“Someone is going to sneak, someone is going to travel, they’re going to sneak in with a false identity, and individuals are going to recognize them on the street, they’re going to contact law enforcement and law enforcement will be ready, because we will have collected evidence from the beginning of this terrible conflict, precisely to be ready for this moment.”
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Different paths to justice
Ms Van Schaack outlined several avenues that will be pursued to seek justice and there are three currently operational as we speak.
“The first is the Attorney General of Ukraine, who is investigating these cases in his own national system with his colleagues, with the support of the international community. The UK, EU and US have engaged a number number of cases, got convictions, and a number of cases are ongoing,” she said.
“Track number two is the International Criminal Court currently seized of this case, considering cases that might be more appropriate for an international court.”
This is how the arrest warrant for Mr. Putin has now been issued.
She continued: “The third way, which should not be forgotten, is national courts around the world. Many European states have formed a joint investigation team to directly share information on the status of potential abuses. and persons potentially responsible.”
Ukraine has also sought some sort of mechanism to be able to prosecute the specific crime of aggression.
On this, Ms Van Schaack said: “This is a high priority for Ukraine, because they consider this initial act of aggression to be the original sin that triggered all the other war crimes and atrocities that we see across the country.”