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Opinion For Putin to face justice, we must join the International Criminal Court

The International Criminal Court in The Hague in 2019. (Peter Dejong/AP)
5 min

Ilhan Omar, a Democrat, represents Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District in the U.S. House.

The world has been rightly shaken to the core by the atrocities being perpetrated by Vladimir Putin and his Russian forces in Ukraine. I have recoiled in horror seeing bodies of civilians — even children — strewn across city streets. Reports of massacres of civilians, mass graves and rapes by Russian forces are rampant, recalling some of the worst atrocities in history.

For me personally, it evokes a traumatic past. As an 8-year-old girl in Somalia, I remember watching armed militias go by my family’s window, hearing bombs go off outside our doors and wondering if our house was next.

No child in Ukraine or anywhere in the world should have to witness what I witnessed as a little girl.

Accountability is the key to prevention. If there are no consequences for committing these atrocities, we will find ourselves in the same place in the future. Putin must be charged and held fully accountable for his crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court (ICC). And anyone responsible for this illegal war of aggression must face justice.

Thankfully, there are already bipartisan calls for accountability, and President Biden himself has labeled Putin a “war criminal.” But unfortunately, a glaring asterisk hangs over any calls for justice made by the United States. That’s because, more than two decades after its creation, we have yet to ratify the Rome Statute — the treaty establishing the ICC. We are in the company of countries such as Iran, Sudan, China, and, yes, Russia as one of several nations that have refused to sign onto this bedrock of international law.

In fact, the Trump administration went so far as to approve sanctions on the staff members of the court for carrying out their jobs.

Biden thankfully lifted these sanctions. But Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated our country’s “longstanding objection to the Court’s efforts to assert jurisdiction over personnel of non-States Parties” last year. In other words: We’re not joining, and don’t investigate us or anyone that is not a member.

Sadly, it’s this exact position that is now hamstringing the United States as we seek accountability for Putin. If we oppose investigations into countries, like our own, that haven’t joined the ICC, how can we support an investigation into Russia, another country that hasn’t joined the court?

There’s a simple solution to this: The United States must join the International Criminal Court.

Equality under the law is one of the core tenets of our legal system and the international legal system. If we truly believe in prioritizing human rights and enforcing international law, how can we not be part of the court that upholds that law?

Our absence also allows regimes to commit human rights abuses with impunity. If the most powerful country won’t hold itself accountable to the rule of law, other countries feel emboldened to violate it. And indeed, we have turned a blind eye to wanton human rights violations by regimes in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, El Salvador and even India, in the name of political convenience. Even when war criminals are successfully convicted— as Malian terrorist Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi was in 2016 — our absence only undermines the legitimacy of those verdicts.

It’s also important to remember that the ICC is a court of last resort. It doesn’t have jurisdiction over crimes unless the country in question — like Russia — is unable or unwilling to prosecute the perpetrators domestically. Because we aren’t members of the ICC, we can’t engage directly in the efforts to prosecute criminals. Imagine how much we could accomplish if we helped legitimize the ICC.

Many will argue that there are parts of the criminal court that need to be reformed. I agree. Let’s work as a member state to improve it and make sure it lives up to the highest standards of impartiality.

The United States once led the world on international justice. In response to the horrors of the Holocaust, we spearheaded the Nuremberg trials to hold Nazi war criminals accountable and, for the first time, establish international criminal law. We intentionally created an impartial judicial process modeled on our own judiciary, rather than simply executing Nazi war criminals without trial. The last living Nuremberg prosecutor, Benjamin Ferencz, boiled this philosophy down to a simple axiom: “Law not war.”

In this moment of horrifying violence, it’s time to reclaim the mantle of leadership we seized after World War II. It’s time to hold the perpetrators of crimes against humanity accountable for their actions and send a message to the whole world that true justice is blind, that no targeting of civilians, no use of chemical weapons and no wars of aggression will ever be tolerated again. It’s time for the United States to join the International Criminal Court.

If we believe Putin should be held accountable for violating international law, then we have to support international law. This week, I will be introducing a resolution to join the court, and I hope other members of Congress will join me in supporting it.

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