The International Criminal Court issues arrest warrants for two Russian military leaders for war crimes

Wolfgang Schwan / ANADOLU AGENCY / Anadolu via AFP

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and its member organisations the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL) and the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG) welcome the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) issuing of arrest warrants against Russia’s senior military commanders for suspected systematic and deliberate attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, marking the first allegations of crimes against humanity in the ICC Ukraine situation.

Paris, Kyiv, Kharkiv, 7 March 2024. On 5 March 2024, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for two high-ranking Russian military officials, Lieutenant General Sergei Kobylash of the Russian Armed Forces and Admiral Viktor Sokolov of the Russian Navy. They are charged with the war crimes of launching attacks on civilian targets and civilians, along with the crime against humanity of committing inhumane acts. Both are allegedly responsible for such acts as individuals as well as commanders, for acts committed by their subordinates.

While welcoming the Court’s decision, FIDH Vice President and Head of CCL Oleksandra Matviichuk, Nobel Peace Prize laureate of 2022, expressed hope that "arrest warrants will also be issued for the highest-ranking military officials, such as [Minister of Defence of the Russian Federation] Shoigu and [Chief of the General Staff] Gerasimov, as such a large-scale operation could not have been carried out without their direct approval and instructions. The top officials had the authority, knew, and did not prevent these crimes from being committed, therefore, the destruction of the energy infrastructure is the responsibility not only of these two officials, but also of their immediate superiors."

The targeted campaign of rocket, missile and drone attacks against Ukraine’s electric infrastructure, left countless Ukrainian civilians without heat, light, and other essential services during the winter of 2023. The destruction caused by these attacks carried out by the Russian forces from October 2022 until March 2023 had a profound and long-lasting impact, leaving millions of Ukrainians in the dark without reliable access to electricity. These severe conditions led to a major wave of refugees fleeing Ukraine, seeking protection from the unbearable living conditions. The use of generators, while a temporary possible solution, brought additional environmental pollution to Ukrainian cities, further compounding the humanitarian crisis. Moreover, the impact on healthcare services, including the ability to provide essential medical care, highlights the broader consequences of targeting civilian infrastructure, affecting every aspect of daily life and wellbeing.

"The ICC’s assessment that the extensive and systematic assaults on Ukrainian energy facilities could be indicative of a state-sanctioned policy of cruel treatment towards civilians represents a significant evolution in the Court’s evaluation of Russia’s military actions as possible crimes against humanity", noted Ilya Nuzov, Head of Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk at FIDH. "As a reminder, the previous arrest warrants against Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova Belova charged them with war crimes only, even though the systematic deportations of Ukrainian children bore all the hallmarks of crimes against humanity."

"By initially qualifying these actions under Article 7(1)(k) of the Rome Statute, as ’other inhumane acts’ constituting crimes against humanity, the ICC could eventually broaden the scope of prohibited actions targeting civilians through its jurisprudence. This move highlights the attacks as allegedly systematic and widespread, driven by state policy, rather than being arbitrary. Such a differentiation emphasises the intentional targeting of civilian infrastructure to inflict significant suffering on civilians", added Yevgeniy Zakharov, Director of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHRG).

The ICC’s adjustment from maintaining the secrecy of warrants to their public disclosure in this instance is a calculated strategy, intended to safeguard investigations while confronting continuing violations of international law, showcasing a commitment to transparency as a tool to deter future breaches and bolster international law enforcement.

FIDH, CCL and KHPG welcome this important step towards a more comprehensive justice for crimes committed in Ukraine. However, more remains to be done in that sense. Ukraine accepted the jurisdiction of the ICC over alleged crimes committed on its territory since 20 February 2014, as officially declared in 2015 under article 12(3) of the Rome Statute, but has yet to ratify the ICC Rome Statute. Therefore, FIDH encourages the Ukrainian authorities to ratify the Rome Statute to strengthen their engagement with the ICC and potentially facilitate the progression of investigations. FIDH also calls on all States to cooperate with the ICC in the implementation of all four outstanding arrest warrants stemming from the situation in Ukraine.

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