Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia on 27 August 2019 Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia on 27 August 2019 Photo: Metin Akta/Anadolu Agency

Putin is likely guilty of war crimes, but the ICC operates on an agenda that ignores the actions of Western war criminals, argues John Clarke

No one can seriously imagine that the decision of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to issue an arrest warrant for the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, on war-crimes charges will lead to him actually standing trial. ‘The ICC has no powers to arrest suspects, and can only exercise jurisdiction within its member countries – and Russia is not one of them.’ From this it is clear that the practical significance of this measure is confined to the political impact that it may have.

In laying these charges, the court ‘has focused its claims on the unlawful deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia.’ It has determined that it has ‘reasonable grounds to believe Mr Putin committed the criminal acts directly, as well as working with others. It also accused him of failing to use his presidential powers to stop children being deported.’ The investigation that led to the charges has been underway for just over one year.

War criminals

The Russian invasion of Ukraine constitutes a war of aggression and this has doubtless involved the carrying out of war crimes in which Putin is directly implicated. It may well be that the ICC has a solid case, but the bigger question is why the Russian leader faces charges when so many war criminals among Western political leaders remain at large.

The impartiality of the ICC, as an enforcer of standards of international justice, had been called into question long before it laid charges against Putin. Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL), has suggested that ‘the ICC is both structurally and materially biased in favour of the West and instrumentalised by the United Nations Security Council in a continuous attempt to reinforce the existing global imbalance of power.

That TWAIL’s view of the ICC’s selectivity is well founded can be seen from a glance at the list of people against whom the court has chosen to bring charges. The defendants have been selected overwhelmingly from the African continent and Western leaders are conspicuous by their absence. The enforcement of international criminal law has very obviously been directed at ‘low hanging fruit’ in poor countries, while the crimes and atrocities of the main imperialist powers have been largely disregarded.

The United States adamantly refuses to accept that its own vast capacity for global violence should be accountable to any international standards and, for this reason, it hasn’t recognised the jurisdictional authority of the ICC. Nonetheless, Joe Biden has still made it clear that his administration is very happy with the decision to go after Putin. He stressed that the laying of the charges was justified and that the prosecution made a ‘very strong point’.

Key US allies that have signed the Rome Statute were also entirely supportive of the move against Putin. UK foreign secretary, James Cleverly, issued a statement saying that: ‘We welcome the step taken by the independent ICC to hold those at the top of the Russian regime, including Vladimir Putin, to account … Work must continue to investigate the atrocities committed.’ Cleverly, however, was outdone by Keir Starmer who, neglecting to mention Tony Blair, proclaimed that: ‘There will be no hiding place for Putin and his cronies and the world is determined to make them pay for what they have done.’

This jarring double standard when it comes to those responsible for war crimes reached a peak of absurdity last month when Biden, during a trip to Warsaw, declared that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is an unprecedented event. As he put it: “The idea that over 100,000 forces would invade another country – since World War II, nothing like that has happened.” The president was speaking just weeks before the twentieth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq that involved ‘sending 130,000 US troops into a sovereign country to overthrow its government.’

There can be no doubt that the criminality of the attack on Iraq cries out for legal consequences for the key perpetrators. This was already clear by 2011 when ‘the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Commission (KLWCC), a tribunal (the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal, or KLWCT) consisting of five judges with judicial and academic backgrounds reached a unanimous verdict that found George W. Bush and Tony Blair guilty of crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, and genocide as a result of their roles in the Iraq War.’ Yet neither of these men have ever faced any reckoning for the death and suffering for which they were responsible.

The attack on Iraq in 2003, moreover, was preceded by other terrible acts of aggression against Iraq for which US political leaders were responsible. Since criminal prosecution hinges on the question of intent, it’s worth remembering an interview that former US Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, gave in 1996. She was confronted with evidence that US sanctions had led to the deaths of half a million Iraqi children. Albright’s response to the question was clear and unforgettable. “I think that is a very hard choice,” she said, “but the price, we think, the price is worth it.

ICC complicity

When it comes to the crimes of the US and its major allies, the ICC hasn’t just failed to take action. It has deliberately chosen to leave the Western powers alone and to redirect its efforts at more convenient targets. In 2021, the ICC announced that it was reopening an investigation into human-rights abuses in Afghanistan. However, it declared that it would disregard US crimes, including compelling evidence with regard to the systematic use of torture, and would ‘focus exclusively on crimes committed by the Taliban and by the Islamic State Khorasan Province, or IS-K, the Islamic State group’s affiliate in Afghanistan.’

This decision, very understandably, sparked outrage within the country. Shaharzad Akbar, the former chair of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, stated that: ‘This just proves one more time to Afghans that international mechanisms do not value their life when foreigners are involved and international forces are involved.’ She added that: ‘This decision reinforces the perception that these institutions set up in the West and by the West are just instruments for the West’s political agenda.

It would be impossible to provide here a summary of the grounds that a credible court of international justice would have for laying charges against the political leaders of the US and its major allies. Still, as the present government in Israel descends to new depths of brutality against the Palestinians, it is essential to note that Israel’s leaders and their enablers in the West deserve to be held accountable for their massive crimes. As the US based Center for Constitutional Rights put it in 2021:

‘The United States is complicit in Israeli war crimes and crimes against humanity against Palestinians who, for decades, have been struggling for freedom and the right to remain on their land with dignity. With its unconditional financial, military, and diplomatic support of the Israeli apartheid regime, the U.S. bears responsibility for the everyday violence of Israeli oppression and belligerent military occupation, and for allowing the Israeli military and security forces to wield deadly force against Palestinians with impunity.’

To the chagrin of the political leaders of both Israel and the US, the ICC has undertaken an investigation into the glaring war crimes of Israeli forces against the population of Gaza. However, this limited and fragile response to decades of occupation and human-rights abuses doesn’t compare very favourably with the energetic and swift laying of charges against the Russian leader. The biases and selective investigatory zeal of the ICC remain entirely clear.

As I suggested at the outset, there is no question of denying Putin’s criminality in Ukraine or of mounting any defence for him. The issue, however, is that the ICC is employing a selectivity in who it does and doesn’t prosecute that exposes the political agenda that it is at work. Put simply, if Putin’s crimes had served Washington’s strategic interests, the ICC would have almost certainly looked the other way.

Noam Chomsky once stated that: ‘If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged.’ In line with this, we might say that, if Vladimir Putin should be charged as a war criminal, then Bush, Blair and a veritable rogues’ gallery of Western political leaders should be crowded into the dock alongside him.


John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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