War crimes round-up: Putin wanted by ICC, Australian soldier charged for war crimes in Afghanistan
Geneva Solutions’s monthly “war criminal hunt” in collaboration with the Geneva-based NGO Civitas Maxima.
The decision of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to issue an arrest warrant against Vladimir Putin was the most striking news of the month. Given that the ICC does not have jurisdiction over the crime of aggression of the war in Ukraine, there were question marks around whether chief prosecutor Karim Khan would be able to convince the judges to issue an arrest warrant directly against the Russian president.
A little over a year after the beginning of the conflict, Khan and his team were able to do so by focusing on an emblematic crime – the forcible transfer of children – where Putin’s direct implication seems prima facie clear: for example, he had issued a decree fast-tracking the granting of Russian citizenship for the abducted Ukrainian children to make them easier to adopt. The arrest warrant makes the ultimate liability for this conflict very clear.
- Alain Werner, director of Civitas Maxima
ICC issues arrest warrant for Putin
The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant this month against Russian president Vladimir Putin and the country’s commissioner for children’s rights, Maria Lvova-Belova, for unlawfully taking Ukrainian children to Russia.
Announcing the decision on 17 March, ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan claimed to have “reasonable grounds to believe” that the two “bear criminal responsibility” for the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children from occupied Ukrainian areas to Russia.
The Rome Statute, the court’s founding treaty, considers the forcible transfer of children from “one group to another” as a war crime. Ukrainian authorities say that over 16,000 children have been grabbed from orphanages and children’s care homes since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Ukraine is not a party to the Rome Statute but has accepted ICC jurisdiction for crimes committed on their territory from February 2014 onwards. Russia withdrew its signature of the court’s treaty in 2016, making it unlikely that Putin will be arrested or prosecuted anytime soon. However, the warrants have a highly symbolic meaning for the accountability of the atrocities committed in Ukraine. They also constrain Putin and Lvova-Belova in their foreign travel.
Even though they complied to cooperate with the court, it is still unclear to what extent the 123 member states will enforce the arrest orders. Hungary, for example, has already said that, although it is an ICC member state, it would not arrest Putin should he enter the country.
South Africa, also an ICC state party, is mulling over what to do if Putin accepts an invitation to attend the BRICS summit due to be held in August in Pretoria. The government said it was seeking legal advice about how to deal with the warrant for Putin, who personally attended the summit in 2022. South Africa had already defied ICC obligations in 2015 when it refused to arrest Sudan’s former president Omar al-Bashir, the only other active head of state to have an ICC arrest warrant filed against him.
Australia takes step in owning up for war crimes in Afghanistan
An Australian soldier was charged with the war crime of allegedly murdering an Afghan civilian during his deployment in Afghanistan, Australian authorities announced on 20 March.
It is the first arrest following a joint investigation between the Australian Federal Police and the Office of the Special Investigator after a report in 2020 revealed that Australian special forces allegedly killed 39 individuals in Afghanistan.
Australia joined the US-led coalition during the war in Afghanistan (2001-2022) in October 2001 and had withdrawn its troops by December 2013, leaving around 400 military personnel in the country to support the Afghan army.
Human Rights Watch underlined the relevance of the arrest, calling it a “striking example” for countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, where there have been no significant efforts to prosecute crimes committed by state personnel in Afghanistan or Iraq.
DRC ordered to pay compensation for crimes against humanity
A military tribunal in the Democratic Republic of Congo convicted three Congolese militiamen for crimes against humanity on 1 March. The men were part of the Raia Mutomboki Bralima military group, made up of local defence movements backed by members of the Congolese national army. The militia launched several brutal attacks on the Congolese civilian population between 2017 and 2021, abducting and enslaving women and girls, burning down the population’s houses, and looting their livestock in the Kaabare region, where political instability has prevailed since the death of the traditional local chief in 2016.
The case is particularly relevant because the court also ordered the Congolese state, which failed to prevent these crimes, to pay for psychological and medical support for the victims still suffering from the acts. International NGOs, including Geneva-based NGO Trial International and the UN peacekeeping mission Monusco, have been involved in the judicial process.
What else happened?
Switzerland opens war crimes case on Ukraine. The Swiss federal prosecution confirmed at the end of March that it would investigate an attack on Swiss photographer Guillaume Briquet by a Russian commando in southern Ukraine. Ukrainian NGO Truth Hounds, assisted by Civitas Maxima, filed a denunciation about the case in August 2022. Swiss authorities can deal with war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Ukraine on the principle of universal jurisdiction.
Lawsuit against Civitas Maxima in Liberia. Agnes Reeves-Taylor, the ex-wife of former Liberian president Charles Taylor, is suing Civitas Maxima and GJRP for “malicious prosecution” before a Liberian court. The lawsuit targets the two NGOs and their directors, which had provided initial information to UK authorities, sparking an independent investigation that culminated in her arrest for alleged acts of torture during the First Liberian War. The NGOs have called it “an attempt to silence organisations that work for the accountability of international crimes”.
Farc ex-fighters charged for child recruitment. After investigating over 18,600 cases of child soldier recruitment, Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace tribunal (JEP) indicted ten former members of the Farc guerilla group on 8 March. The JEP was set up in 2017 to prosecute crimes committed during more than 50 years of bloody conflict. Despite the peace accords adopted in 2016 that saw the rebel group agree to lay down arms, the conflict prevails, fuelled by drug trafficking, military aid provided by the United States to the Colombian government as well as right-wing paramilitary and left-wing rebel groups that remain active.
Switzerland passes bill on the crime of aggression. Hours after a UN inquiry concluded that it found “reasonable grounds” to believe Russia committed the crime of aggression by invading Ukraine, the Swiss parliament approved a new bill on 16 March that makes it possible to prosecute that crime under national law. The new bill closes a legal gap which previously only enabled jurisdiction over the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Germany arrests Islamic state fighter. German authorities arrested a Syrian man, who was allegedly part of a unit in the terrorist group that “kidnapped and executed opposing fighters and otherwise unwanted people”, the federal prosecutors disclosed. The arrest underlines Germany’s leading role in cases under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
War crimes suspect could lose Belgian refugee status. Belgium launched an investigation into the refugee status of a Syrian man who was arrested for allegedly committing war crimes in Syria in mid-March. The country’s secretary of state for asylum and migration, Nathalie de Moore, stressed that the country’s asylum procedure should not serve people who are guilty of these sorts of crimes.
Civitas Maxima is a Geneva-based NGO that facilitates the documentation of international crimes and pursues the redress of such crimes on behalf of victims who do not have access to justice. Founded in 2012 by human rights lawyer Alain Werner, it has most notably represented victims in landmark cases for atrocities committed during the Liberian civil wars.