As a member of the International Criminal Court, Canada has a legal obligation to act on the warrant against Russia’s leader in any way it can.
by Dennis Kovtun
Mar 24, 2023
The arrest warrant recently issued by the International Criminal Court for Russian President Vladimir Putin has formalized his regime’s status as an international criminal.
The rhetorical acknowledgment of this fact should go hand-in-hand with the willingness of countries that are parties to the Rome Statute — an international agreement that established the ICC — to enforce this warrant and put Putin in handcuffs should the opportunity arise.
Ireland and Germany got a head start on this. Both nations said they’d arrest Putin if he ever visited those countries. As one of the original signatories to the Rome Statute, Canada has an obligation to declare the same.
Allan Rock, a former cabinet minister in the Chrétien government, former ambassador to the United Nations, and now a law professor at the University of Ottawa, told me that “not only should we” declare our intention to arrest Putin, but “we must as a state party to the Rome Statute, we’re obligated to offer cooperation to the court. Now that the arrest warrant has been issued, we’re obligated to arrest him and turn him over to the court,” in the unlikely event he ever visits Canada.
Right now, Putin is safely ensconced in Moscow, his hold on power in Russia secure. This doesn’t mean the ICC’s arrest warrant is a mere symbolic designation of Putin as a war criminal and child abductor (he warrant was issued specifically for deporting Ukrainian children from the Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories to Russia). It’s impact is more tangible. The warrant doesn’t have an expiry date. Putin will be a wanted man for the rest of his life.
While the coterie of KGB operatives, high-ranking military officials, oligarchs and mafiosos that props him up seems stable for now, it will not necessarily be so in a few years.
Many believe Russia is headed for a military defeat in Ukraine. Its combat performance has been catastrophic. The Ukrainian government has repeatedly declared it intends to liberate all the occupied territories and regain Crimea and the breakaway parts of the Donbas. It is backed by the military and financial prowess of the West.
While wartime autocrats rarely face leadership challenges, defeat in a war would make Putin acutely vulnerable to a coup.
Putin’s situation may be similar to that of former Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir, Rock said. Al-Bashir was long wanted by the ICC for the genocide that he had organized in the Darfur. For many years he lived carefree, even travelling to South Africa, an ICC member that was obligated
to arrest him, but didn’t. In 2019, however, al-Bashir’s luck ran out and he was deposed by his own military. The new government said he’d be eventually handed over to the ICC.
A similar fate may befall Putin. If Russia loses the war, the Russian security establishment, which is the main power-holding faction in the Kremlin, could look for alternatives to the discredited aging autocrat.
The warrant also has a side effect of “sending the signal to Putin that we’re closing the door on any relationship with him,” Rock said. His regime is an acute international pariah, and this status extends to his cronies and officials, and affects every aspect of how Canada should deal with Russia.
The Ukrainian Canadian Congress, for example, is calling for a severe downgrade in Canada’s relationship with Russia.
“Canada should expel the Russian diplomatic mission immediately. Russian diplomats represent a criminal, terrorist regime,” UCC senior policy adviser Orest Zakydalsky in a statement.
Any new regime in Russia that replaces Putin may choose to hand him over to The Hague — if he’s still alive by then — in an effort to lessen Russia’s international isolation.
Should this scenario come to pass, Canada should make extradition of Putin and his confederates — more arrest warrants are certain to follow — to the ICC a precondition for any Western rapprochement with Russia. It can do so by applying diplomatic pressure on Russia, of course, and on the more fickle Western states that might wish to forgo the justice process and move on, and by allocating extra financial and expert support to the work of the ICC.
The brutal crimes that Russia committed in Ukraine must have consequences, and those responsible for them must be punished. Justice for Ukraine is good for peace. It might just make the repetition of such savagery less likely elsewhere.
Dennis Kovtun is an Ottawa-based Ukrainian-Canadian journalist.