Russia appeared on course Wednesday to become the latest nation to snub the International Criminal Court, sending a signal of defiance after a U.N. panel cited rights abuses and other complaints linked to Russia’s annexation of Crimea more than two years ago.
The decree to formally withdraw from the ICC, signed by President Vladimir Putin, also could be a preemptive move to buffer Russia against future claims of war crimes related to its military intervention in Syria.
The move marked the latest defection from the international court, which prosecutes cases involving genocide and crimes against humanity, and raised further questions about the tribunal’s role as a forum of global conscience.
In recent months, South Africa and two other African nations, Burundi and Gambia, have announced plans to leave the court, which is based in The Hague, amid widening complaints in Africa that the court has disproportionately focused on the continent and its leaders. The United States is among a handful of nations that remain outside the court, with U.S. leaders fearing membership could open the door to prosecutions against American military personnel and others.
Putin’s decree, published on the Kremlin’s website, followed the approval of a report by a U.N. human rights committee that condemned Russia’s “temporary occupation of Crimea” and accused Moscow of rights abuses and discrimination in the peninsula, formerly controlled by Ukraine.
Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014, claiming it was acting on behalf of pro-Russian residents wanting to break with Ukraine. The move brought a wave of international sanctions and sent relations between the West and Moscow into a tailspin. A month later, a separatist rebellion by pro-Moscow militias broke out in eastern Ukraine against the Western-allied government in Kiev.
On Monday, the ICC issued a preliminary report that described Crimea as “an international armed conflict between Ukraine and the Russian Federation.”
Russia has signed the treaty that established the international court but never formally ratified it. A Putin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the withdrawal aimed to protect “national interests,” the Associated Press reported.
Peskov also rejected the ICC’s accusations of an “armed conflict” in Crimea, saying Crimea opted to join Russia after a referendum — a vote whose legitimacy was widely questioned in the West.
“The problem with Russia’s attack on the ICC is one of timing. Russia has been no great supporter of the ICC, and this is clearly posturing,” said Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the Center on Conflict, Rights and Justice at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
Vinjamuri also predicted further pressures on the court by the administration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump.
“Putin has been emboldened by Trump’s election. . . . The fact that the [ICC] prosecutor’s office is making noises about investigating U.S. soldiers for torture in Afghanistan makes this a perfect storm for attacks on the International Criminal Court by two permanent members of the Security Council,” she said, referring to Russia and the United States.
Russia’s rejection may not spare its citizens from ICC prosecution, however, because Ukraine is a member of the court, said David Bosco, an associate professor at Indiana University and author of a book on the ICC, “Rough Justice.”
“The main upshot of this is that we’re heading for a potential confrontation between the court and some nonmember states,” Bosco said. “Russia’s move is part of a broader dynamic in which the court is moving toward more ambitious investigations and generating tension with powerful nonmember states.”
The Russian break with the court also could encourage other nations to follow suit, including some African states such as Uganda and Congo, which have already expressed deep reservations about the tribunal. The court’s four convictions so far have been against African warlords or political figures, while war crimes prosecutions in other conflicts, such as the Balkan wars of the 1990s, were conducted in separate tribunals.
South Africa turned its back on the ICC after criticism that it ignored an order by the tribunal to arrest Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir during a visit last year.
Adam Taylor contributed to this report.