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Why did Russia withdraw from the ICC?

Roman Goncharenko
November 18, 2016

Moscow recently announced that it is withdrawing from the ICC. Experts believe that this is because Russian leaders are concerned about facing possible charges.

Den Haag Internationaler Strafgerichtshof IStGH / ICC
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Beekman

"The Hague is waiting for Putin." Many Ukrainians have been wishing this would happen to the Russian president ever since Russia annexed Crimea in early 2014. Countless memes, videos and collages of Putin in the dock at the International Criminal Court have been shared on social networks. But on Wednesday it became obvious that this will remain a dream on social networks as Russia announced its withdrawal from the ICC. Putin ordered Russia's Foreign Ministry to inform the UN Secretary-General about the decision.

"It is a step in a direction that has been seen in other respects," said Otto Luchterhandt, the former head of research on Eastern European Law of the University of Hamburg. He pointed out the position of Russia's constitutional court since 2015, according to which decisions of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg would only be respected if they did not contradict Russian laws. Russia is revealing an "increasing rejection" of international decisions, asserted Luchterhandt.

Bye bye ICC?

Pierre Thielbörger, head of the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict (IFHV) Ruhr University Bochum (RUB), told DW that Moscow's decision to withdraw from the ICC is political and "doesn't really mean anything legally." Russia was never bound by the court.

Moscow: ICC is "one-sided and inefficient"

The ICC in The Hague was founded in 1998 as an international tribunal that examines war crimes and crimes against humanity. Russia signed the Rome Statute, the ICC's foundational document, in 2000 but has not yet ratified it. Now Russia is pulling out completely. The First Deputy Chairman of the State Duma's Committee on International Affairs, Leonid Slutsky, said that the ICC is "one-sided and inefficient." Russia's Commissioner for Human Rights, Tatyana Moskalkova, has expressed similar views.

Ukrainian and Western media are speculating as to whether this decision was related to the latest news from The Hague. In preliminary investigations, the ICC's chief prosecutor stated that the annexation of Crimea in 2014 evidences an armed international conflict between Russia and the Ukraine. This also includes the war in the eastern part of Ukraine. It is the first time that an international institution has classified the conflict as a military confrontation.

Ukraine Russland Konflikt Krim
Ukrainian tanks and APCs move towards the de-facto border with Crimea near Kherson, southern Ukraine, Friday, Aug. 12, 2016.Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Shulman

A threat to Putin and his ministers?

Russia would be guilty of aggression in the Ukraine, believes Eastern European law expert Luchterhandt. The criminal offense has only been incorporated into an article of the Rome Statute since 2010 and will come into effect in 2017.  "In any case, we (in the Ukraine) are dealing with processes which, with regard to objective legal assessments, must be classified as aggressive crimes carried out by the Russian Federation," said Luchterhandt. It is possible that Russia may have been forced to face the ICC in the foreseeable future.

Luchterhandt explains how the Rome Statute explicitly holds government officials accountable for aggression.  In this case, it would be the president, the prime minister, the defense minister or the chief of military staff. Since Moscow's announcement, convicting people in these positions has "definitely been ruled out," said Luchterhandt.

Pierre Thielbörger from the University of Bochum sees only one way remaining for the ICC to hold Russian citizens accountable: the alleged crimes must have been committed in the Ukraine. "Although the Ukraine itself has not ratified the Rome Statute, it has issued the ICC with a limited authorization to investigate the matter. If this path is pursued, then Russian citizens may be affected," said Thielbörger. Then, however, the ICC would be entering a political minefield. "We are eagerly waiting to see how and whether it actually happens," said the international law expert.

Syrien Krieg - Luftangriffe in Aleppo
Syrians walk near collapsed buildings after war crafts belonging to the Syrian and Russian army carried out airstrikes over residential areas in Aleppo, Syria on November 16, 2016. Jawad al Rifai / Anadolu Agency Image: picture-alliance/Anadolu Agency/J. al Rifai

Ukraine, Syria, Georgia

The Ukraine conflict is not the only reason why the ICC could bring charges against Russia, said Luchterhandt. He cites the current military operation in Syria and the fact that in October, French Prime Minister Francois Holland and British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson accused Russia of committing war crimes. There have been activities in Syria that could be classified as war crimes and breaches of the Rome Statute," said Luchterhandt. "In particular, this means bombing the civilian population and civilian facilities."

And finally, many have forgotten the war between Russia and the former Soviet republic of Georgia in 2008. At the moment the ICC is carrying out preliminary investigations in Georgia.

Following the USA's example

Russia is not the only country in the world that refuses to cooperate with the ICC. This is also true of Moscow's arch rival on the international stage, the USA. Recently, some African states have announced that they too will withdraw from the ICC. Even the Ukrainian president has not ratified the Rome Statute, which has drawn criticism in his own country.

When Russia compares itself with the USA, Moscow's leaders seem to forget how much Washington's reputation has suffered because of its internationally controversial decisions, such as the invasion of Iraq in 2003, said the Russian columnist Ivan Preobrazhensky. He pointed out that if Russia goes on like this, it may completely lose sight of international law. International isolation could then be possible.