The International Criminal Court issued its first arrest warrants tied to Russia's war in Ukraine, charging Russian President Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, with war crimes for taking children to Russia from occupied areas of Ukraine.
Judges from a pre-trial chamber of The Hague, Netherlands-based court said there are "reasonable grounds to believe that each suspect bears responsibility for the war crime of unlawful deportation of population and that of unlawful transfer of population from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation, in prejudice of Ukrainian children."
The ICC said the charges of war crimes tied to Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022 were initially meant to be kept under wraps – but were revealed in the interest of public service.
"The chamber considered that the warrants are secret in order to protect victims and witnesses and also to safeguard the investigation," they said.
"Nevertheless, mindful that the conduct addressed in the present situation is allegedly ongoing, and that the public awareness of the warrants may contribute to the prevention of the further commission of crimes," they said, "the chamber considered that it is in the interests of justice to authorize the registry to publicly disclose the existence of the warrants, the name of the suspects, the crimes for which the warrants are issued, and the modes of liability as established by the chamber."
Russia immediately dismissed the announcement, while Ukraine welcomed it Neither country is party to the ICC, but Ukraine has asked to be subject to its jurisdiction since the invasion began last year.
The ICC is the world’s first permanent international criminal court with the jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for the most serious crimes under international law — crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes and aggression.
It was created to serve as a court of last resort among member nations and is intended to step in only when nations are unwilling or unable to dispense justice themselves.
The U.N. Security Council has the power to refer a matter to the ICC's prosecutors for investigation, even in a country that does not recognize its jurisdiction.
Children are not 'spoils of war'
The ICC's Prosecutor Karim Khan said the charges are based on evidence collected and analyzed by his office that pertains to the deportation of "at least hundreds of children taken from orphanages and children’s care homes."
"Many of these children, we allege, have since been given for adoption in the Russian Federation. The law was changed in the Russian Federation, through Presidential decrees issued by President Putin, to expedite the conferral of Russian citizenship, making it easier for them to be adopted by Russian families," he said.
"My office alleges that these acts, amongst others, demonstrate an intention to permanently remove these children from their own country," he said. "At the time of these deportations, the Ukrainian children were protected persons under the Fourth Geneva Convention."
The four Geneva Conventions, which dictate the rules of war, date to 1949. The fourth one says that civilians in areas of armed conflict and occupied territories are to be protected. It also includes provisions against recruiting children.
Khan stressed the importance of ensuring that those responsible for these alleged crimes are held accountable and the children are returned to their families and communities. "We cannot allow children to be treated as if they are the spoils of war," he said.
Khan had announced on March 2, 2022 that he was opening an investigation in Ukraine based on referrals from other countries that are part of the court. Ukraine also is not a signatory to the court's foundational Rome Statute, but it has twice asked the court to exercise its jurisdiction over its territory.
He has been participating since last year in a European Union-backed Joint Investigative Team, or JIT, that has been gathering evidence on alleged core international crimes committed in Ukraine with the aim of bringing those responsible to justice, according to European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation, known as Eurojust, which hosts the team.
As of this month, Khan has made four official visits to Ukraine. Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine set up the JIT on March 25, 2022, one month after Russia invaded Ukraine, which has been widely condemned by the international community in a series of U.N.-sponsored votes as an illegal act of aggression. The invasion sharply escalated the war that began in 2014 when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea.
The fourth visit, he said on March 7, included twice meeting with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and ended with a sense that "the momentum towards justice is accelerating."
Khan said he plans along with Ukraine's Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin "to ensure that such acts are fully investigated and those responsible for alleged international crimes held to account."
His visit also included a trip to see a once-bustling care home for children, where drawings were still pinned on the wall and the cupboards were full of clothes.
"But this home was empty, a result of alleged deportation of children from Ukraine to the Russian Federation or their unlawful transfer to other parts of the temporarily occupied territories," he said.
Under the pretense of humanitarian reasons, Russia has not shied from boasting about capturing Ukrainian children and teenagers to hand over to Russian families, then concealing the children's identities so they cannot be tracked down.
Lvova-Belova confirmed in a Telegram post on March 10 that her government is deporting Ukrainian children to Russia, but denied it is illegal.
"You can often read in the Western media that we forcibly keep the children of Ukrainian citizens and prevent them from reuniting with their families," she said. "Numbers in the thousands are being cited, fear and panic are being artificially whipped up, and the real picture of events is being distorted."