What to Know about the ICC’s Arrest Warrant for Putin

The Biden administration has been engaged in an internal dispute over whether to provide the court with evidence gathered by the U.S. intelligence community about Russian war crimes. Most of the administration favors transferring the evidence, according to people familiar with the internal deliberations, but the Pentagon has balked because it does not want to set a precedent that could pave the way for eventual prosecutions of Americans.

Human rights groups hailed the warrant as an important step toward ending impunity for Russian war crimes in Ukraine, but the likelihood of a trial while Mr. Putin remains in power appears slim, because the court cannot try defendants in absentia and Russia has said it will not surrender its own officials.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry quickly dismissed the warrants, noting that it is not a party to the court. Still, the warrant for Mr. Putin’s arrest deepens his isolation in the West and could limit his movements overseas. If he travels to a state that is party to the I.C.C., that country must arrest him, according to its obligations under international law.

“This makes Putin a pariah,” Stephen Rapp, a former ambassador at large heading the Office of Global Criminal Justice in the U.S. State Department, said. “If he travels, he risks arrest. This never goes away.” And, he said, Russia cannot gain relief from sanctions without complying with the warrants.

“Either Putin is placed on trial in The Hague,” Mr. Rapp said, or “he is increasingly isolated, and dies with this hanging over his head.”

The court has no power to arrest sitting heads of state or bring them to trial, and instead must rely on other leaders and governments to act as its sheriffs around the world. A suspect who manages to evade capture may never have a hearing to confirm the charges.

However, late last year, a legal move complicated the issue. In November, the court’s prosecutor petitioned to move ahead with the confirmation of charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity against Joseph Kony, the Ugandan militant and founder of the Lord’s Resistance Army, even though he is not in custody and has been a fugitive for years. Mr. Kony, who transformed kidnapped children into soldiers is accused of murder, cruel treatment, enslavement, rape and attacks against civilian population.

Mr. Khan’s petition amounts to a trial balloon, to see whether the court will agree that charges can be confirmed even if someone is not in custody. The decision is pending.

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