Biden’s call for war trial may be indicative of growing acknowledgment of the International Criminal Court’s crucial role

US President Joe Biden, called for the collection of evidence of war crimes against Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday 4th April, following gruesome reports of mass killings of civilians by Russian troops in Bucha, Ukraine. The Biden administration has openly declared its intention to bring this evidence to trial; and will look to intelligence reports, interviews from global, independent media, and observations from Ukrainian residents and international organizations to build a case through the International Criminal Court (ICC), or a similar mechanism.

The reports indicate that civilian bodies lie strewn across the streets of Bucha, bound and bruised with gunshot wounds. Perhaps even more disturbing are the accounts which allege that Russian troops are blatantly opening fire on civilians, in what is a clear contravention of customary humanitarian law. Furthermore, in an ICC statement issued on 28th February, the ICC’s chief prosecutor Karim Khan stated that there is “reasonable basis to believe that alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed.” Even so, bringing President Putin before the court could prove difficult as Russia does not acknowledge the court’s jurisdiction, nor can the court try an individual in absentia. Additionally, Russia is not a state party to the Rome Statute, which means that Putin cannot be tried for crimes of aggression for invading Ukraine, and that Russia can apply its privilege as a permanent Security Council member at the UN to veto any attempts to be brought before the ICC for this crime. This essentially gives rise to a situation where Putin can operate with a level of impunity; ultimately underscoring the importance of the Rome Statute in ensuring a layer of accountability, especially where powerful States are concerned.

The USA’s interest in exploring justice for Ukraine through the ICC is therefore a significant milestone, as the country has never been a state party to the Rome statute and has debated the court’s jurisdiction, specifically in regards to its own citizens. The hope is that President Biden’s resolve to hold the Russian Government accountable will lead to a national and global acknowledgment of the court’s important role in maintaining order and promoting the rule of law. As it stands, the EU is demonstrating strong support for bringing justice to war victims in Ukraine via the ICC; for instance, on 5th April, the European Union announced the establishment of a Joint Investigation Team or the investigation of the Russian war crimes in Ukraine. The President of the European Commission von der Leyen indicated that the EU was ready to reinforce this effort by sending teams on the ground to support Ukrainian Prosecution Services for the collection of evidence, and has asked the EU Justice Commissioner Reynders to follow up and contact the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General.

In leveraging this momentum, civil society, in partnership with the international community, need to ramp up calls for:

  • All States to recognize the Rome Statute and become State Parties to it, bearing in mind its importance in providing accountability to perpetrators and justice to victims.
  • The ICC to actively investigate the atrocities in Bucha and across Ukraine, as well as across the globe, with a view to bringing justice to war victims, and making a strong statement about accountability for grave international crimes.
  • Ukraine to complete its application to formalize ratification of the Rome Statute and aid in the investigation of international crimes undertaken within its territory.