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Russia is making a show of leaving the International Criminal Court

by David Gilbert
Nov 16 2016, 11:48am

Vladimir Putin ordered on Wednesday that Russia withdraw its signature from the founding statue of the International Criminal Court. The move followed criticism from the court regarding the country’s annexation of Crimea, and called for an investigation into its airstrikes in Syria.

Russia’s withdrawal comes just weeks after three African countries — South Africa, Bruundi and the Gambia — signalled their intent to leave the ICC. While those withdrawals could have a significant impact on the court’s standing internationally, Russia’s withdrawal is more symbolic. While Russia signed the Rome statute in 2000, Moscow never ratified the treaty and so remained outside the jurisdiction of the ICC.

“The International Criminal Court has not justified hopes placed upon it and did not become a truly independent and authoritative judicial body,” a spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry said.

The ICC’s function is to prosecute criminals when national courts are unwilling or unable to do so, though investigations can also be referred to it by individual countries and the United Nations Security Council. It prosecutes only the most serious offenses, including genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression.

Iran, Israel and Egypt are among 34 countries who signed the statute but never ratified it, making it hard for the court to bring any potential prosecutions there. Some countries, like India, China and Pakistan have not even signed the treaty. The U.S. has also stayed outside of ICC jurisdiction, as government officials fear any entry may lead to the prosecution of American soldiers.

The Russian withdrawal came just hours after the ICC published a preliminary report into the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The Kremlin claims Crimea voluntarily joined Russia following a referendum. The ICC report disagrees:

“According to information received, the situation in the Crimea and Sevastopol is equivalent to the international armed conflict between Ukraine and the Russian Federation,” ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said in the report. “The Russian Federation employed members of its armed forces to gain control over parts of the territory of Ukraine without the consent of the government of Ukraine.”

Aside from the issue with Crimea, Russia is facing increasing international pressure over its part in the ongoing Syrian war, and in particular, for its air support in the bombing of rebel-held eastern Aleppo where hundreds of civilians have been killed in recent months.

French President Francois Hollande told French television station TMC last month that the bombing of Aleppo amounted to a war crime. “These are people who today are the victims of war crimes. Those that commit these acts will have to face up to their responsibility, including in the ICC.”