The International Criminal Court opened an investigation into possible war crimes in Ukraine, an early step in a process that potentially could lead to Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Kremlin leaders being charged at The Hague.
ICC prosecutor Karim Khan said this week he would start an investigation “as rapidly as possible,” encompassing violations already compiled as well as “any new alleged crimes falling within the jurisdiction of my Office that are committed by any party to the conflict on any part of the territory of Ukraine.”
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia “categorically rejects” the investigation, noting that Russia isn’t part of the ICC, the Tass news service reported.
Ukraine has been seeking an ICC investigation since 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea. In 2019, the court prosecutor’s office found reasonable basis to believe that war crimes–including intentional targeting of civilians, torture and sexual violence–had been committed in eastern regions where Russian-backed separatists were fighting the central government. But the prosecutor’s office, strapped by other cases and facing obstacles including the Covid-19 pandemic in pursuing the investigation, put the Ukraine investigation on hold.
Russia’s February invasion changed that calculus. Mr. Khan, a British lawyer who in June began a nine-year term as the ICC’s third prosecutor, said the effort would require additional support from world governments. “I will continue to closely follow developments on the ground in Ukraine, and again call for restraint and strict adherence to the applicable rules of international humanitarian law,” he said. He invited anyone with relevant information to contact his office via email: email@example.com.
Both the U.S. and Russia have had erratic relationships with the ICC. Washington helped lead negotiations to create a permanent international war-crimes court in the 1990s, to replace ad-hoc tribunals the United Nations established to prosecute humanitarian offenses in the Yugoslavia and Rwanda conflicts. President Bill Clinton signed the Rome Statute of the ICC with reservations because the treaty didn’t give the U.S. power to block investigations of its personnel. President George W. Bush withdrew entirely over similar concerns.
Russia likewise signed but didn’t ratify the Rome Statute, and in 2016 withdrew altogether after the ICC classified Moscow’s annexation of Crimea as an occupation.
The U.S. and Russia did support U.N. Security Council referrals of two cases to the ICC, those involving Sudan’s Darfur region, in 2005, and Libya in 2011. The ICC holds jurisdiction in states that have ratified the Rome Statute or accepted the court’s authority for more limited purposes–as has Ukraine–or when the Security Council refers a case to it.
In September 2020, the Trump administration, fearing a possible investigation into allegations of American war crimes in Afghanistan, banned the ICC’s then-prosecutor and a senior aide from the U.S. and imposed other sanctions. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the court “a thoroughly broken and corrupted institution” and said the U.S. “will not tolerate its illegitimate attempts to subject Americans to its jurisdiction.”
No Americans have been charged in any ICC proceeding, and the Biden administration canceled the sanctions last year.
–William Mauldin contributed to this post