The Cable

Why Russia Just Withdrew from the ICC

The ICC has had a rough year, and Russia just made things worse.


The International Criminal Court has had a rough year, and Russia just made things worse. On Wednesday, Moscow announced it was cutting ties with the international tribunal, withdrawing its signature from the founding treaty.

“The court did not live up to the hopes associated with it and did not become truly independent,” Russia’s foreign ministry explained, after President Vladimir Putin issued a decree announcing his country’s intentions to “no longer be a party” to the ICC’s founding treaty, the Rome Statute.

The timing is no coincidence. On Monday, the ICC’s lead prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, issued a report saying for the first time that the conflict in Ukraine amounts to an armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine. “The information available suggests that the situation within the territory of Crimea and Sevastopol amounts to an international armed conflict between Ukraine and the Russian Federation,” the report said. It goes on to say that Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian peninsula Crimea “factually amounts to an on-going state of occupation.” Putin clearly wasn’t too thrilled about that, as it throws cold water on his official narrative Russia has no troops in Ukraine and Crimea voluntarily joined Russia in a free and fair referendum — a narrative pretty much everyone in the West and Kiev says is false.

Russia first signed the Rome Statute in 2000 but never ratified the treaty for the Netherlands-based international court that investigates war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity when national courts fall short.

Withdrawing from the ICC’s treaty has become en vogue lately. In the past two months, Burundi, Gambia, and South Africa all withdrew from the Rome Statute, citing alleged bias against African countries. The ICC currently has 10 ongoing investigations, of which nine are in Africa and one in Georgia. Uganda, Kenya, and Namibia have also signaled they are considering pulling out of the ICC.

“The ICC withdrawals risk becoming a bargaining chip by countries looking to make the world safer for abusive dictators,” said Elizabeth Evenson of Human Rights Watch. “Opting out or crippling the ICC’s ability to try sitting officials will only curtail justice for victims of the worst crimes,” she added.

Putin also could’ve had Syria in mind when he issued his decree; Russia has been accused of war crimes and ‘barbarism’ for its heavy-handed military intervention in Syria. And it just launched a new offensive in the war-torn country this week, which could have opened up to new ICC scrutiny.

The ICC doesn’t play favorites, however. As Foreign Policy first reported on Oct. 31, the court is also poised to investigate the United States for war crimes in Afghanistan. The United States first signed the ICC treaty under President Bill Clinton, but his successor George W. Bush revoked the signature over concerns that ICC prosecutions could turn political and unfairly target Americans.

Photo credit: VINCENT JANNINK/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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