29th Mar 2023


Why Putin war crimes 'tribunal' will need backing of Global South

  • Russian missile strike on a nine-storey apartment block in Dnipro, 14 January 2023 (Photo:
Listen to article

One year after Russia's assault on Ukraine, diplomats have yet to translate bold promises to defend international law into a concrete plan to hold president Vladimir Putin and his cronies accountable for the crime of aggression. As a result, the 40 civilians buried in the rubble of an apartment block in Dnipro following a Russian missile attack are unlikely to be the last of this war's victims.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is probing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine but lacks jurisdiction over the crime of aggression there. Likewise, Russia's veto effectively bars the UN Security Council from acting.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock last week argued for a special tribunal rooted in Ukrainian law (Photo: Flickr/Dirk Vorderstraße)

Ukraine itself is investigating atrocities, as are judicial authorities of some third countries, under the principle of universal jurisdiction. However, Putin and other top officials benefit from immunity before any domestic courts.

That leaves a new international court as the only option to investigate and prosecute Russia's senior leaders for the crime of aggression against Ukraine. Ukraine has been working tirelessly to drum up support, already receiving backing for some form of a court from the European Union, France, The Netherlands, Poland, and the Baltic states.

Last week, Germany joined them. In a powerful speech in The Hague, foreign minister Annalena Baerbock argued for a special tribunal rooted in Ukrainian law. However, she acknowledged that Russia's top three officials would still have immunity before such a tribunal.

To ensure that immunity does not shield Putin and his foreign and defence ministers from prosecution, an overwhelming majority vote in the UN General Assembly that specifically authorises the prosecution and trial of Russian leadership may be the only way to create a viable court for the crime of aggression.

Beyond legalities, such a vote would demonstrate the broad and diverse international support needed to withstand inevitable Russian attacks on its legitimacy.

But to win a General Assembly vote, Ukraine and its allies must confront two critical issues.

First, the widespread exasperation with double standards in international justice. Many states would welcome the creation of a new court for the crime of aggression so long as it sets a marker for future acts of aggression in the world.

In the Global South, where many already resent the impressive international attention and resources devoted to accountability for crimes in Ukraine, this condition may be the key to gaining support for a successful General Assembly resolution.

Nervous precedent

But this kind of thinking makes some policymakers in the United States, France, and the United Kingdom nervous. They are more likely to support a one-off effort for Ukraine to avoid a precedent that could constrain future foreign and security policies.

Ukraine's most powerful friends should recognise that supporting international justice only in select countries, while ignoring or obstructing it in others, is no longer tenable. This approach has undermined the credibility of international law and courts across the Global South, whose governments are unlikely to assent in the General Assembly to any proposal for Ukraine that reeks of hypocrisy.

The second question is about the breadth of the court's mandate. Some have been promoting the idea of a special tribunal focused only on Russia's crime of aggression.

But many in Ukraine and beyond see the need for a court with a wider focus, to assist understandably overwhelmed Ukrainian prosecutors and judges not yet skilled at handling a torrent of complex war crimes and crimes against humanity cases. The ICC is investigating such cases but can only be expected to deal with a handful of them.

Ukraine can help its cause through two concessions. As Baerbock emphasised, it should fulfil its pledge to ratify the Rome Statute, the ICC's founding treaty. This would create goodwill with states concerned about double standards, especially if Ukraine proceeded to advocate filling the loophole that prevents the ICC from prosecuting leaders from states, like Russia, who have refused to join it.

Ukraine should also look beyond the crime of aggression and consider a hybrid, Ukrainian-international court model that would also have jurisdiction over war crimes and crimes against humanity, in complement to the ICC.

This would help Ukraine handle its overwhelming caseload in the immediate term and build Ukrainian capacity for the long term.

Though authorised by the General Assembly, such a mechanism could be administered by another body with international credibility and the resources to do so, such as the European Union.

Ukraine and its partners will rightly push for a UN General Assembly vote before the February 24 anniversary of Russia's full invasion.

To secure majority backing they should be mindful that there is little global appetite for proposals seen as privileging only parts of the world.

Rather, a court to address aggression in Ukraine must advance international justice as a whole. Their ability to compromise may determine whether Putin and future authors of aggression around the world ever face accountability for their actions.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

How to apply the Nuremberg model for Russian war crimes

A Special Tribunal on Russian war crimes in Ukraine must be convened, because no permanent or existing international judicial institution is endowed with jurisdiction over Russian high-ranking officials, writes the head of the Ukraine delegation to the Council of Europe.

Rights group documents forcible-transfer war crimes in Ukraine

A new Human Rights Watch report documents how Russia has forcibly transferred Ukrainian citizens from their homes to Russia and Russian-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine, a war crime in breach of international law, in a so-called "filtration" process.

The military-industrial complex cashing-in on the Ukraine war

From the outset, arms manufacturers eyed this war as a profitable business opportunity. Structural changes took place across the EU, not only to fast-track arms to Ukraine, but also to make more public finance available to the highly-lucrative arms industry.

Why the new ECHR Ukraine-Russia ruling matters

The ECHR ruled that Russia was in "effective control" of separatist regions of Eastern Ukraine from 11 May 2014. In doing so, the court has formally acknowledged the inter-state character of the conflict and Russia's culpability for human rights abuses.

'Symbolic' Putin indictment gets some EU backing

Several EU foreign ministers welcomed the International Criminal Court's decision to issue an arrest warrant for Russian president Vladimir Putin, but it is unlikely to influence negotiations about a special tribunal on the crime of agression.


What does China really want? Perhaps we could try asking

Perhaps even more surprising to the West was the fact that the Iran-Saudi Arabia deal was not brokered by the United States, or the European Union, but by the People's Republic of China. Since when was China mediating peace agreements?

Biden's 'democracy summit' poses questions for EU identity

From the perspective of international relations, the EU is a rare bird indeed. Theoretically speaking it cannot even exist. The charter of the United Nations, which underlies the current system of global governance, distinguishes between states and organisations of states.

Latest News

  1. EU approves 2035 phaseout of polluting cars and vans
  2. New measures to shield the EU against money laundering
  3. What does China really want? Perhaps we could try asking
  4. Dear EU, the science is clear: burning wood for energy is bad
  5. Biden's 'democracy summit' poses questions for EU identity
  6. Finnish elections and Hungary's Nato vote in focus This WEEK
  7. EU's new critical raw materials act could be a recipe for conflict
  8. Okay, alright, AI might be useful after all

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EFBWWEFBWW and FIEC do not agree to any exemptions to mandatory prior notifications in construction
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ways to prevent gender-based violence
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersCSW67: Economic gender equality now! Nordic ways to close the pension gap
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCSW67: Pushing back the push-back - Nordic solutions to online gender-based violence
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersCSW67: The Nordics are ready to push for gender equality
  6. Promote UkraineInvitation to the National Demonstration in solidarity with Ukraine on 25.02.2023

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Azerbaijan Embassy9th Southern Gas Corridor Advisory Council Ministerial Meeting and 1st Green Energy Advisory Council Ministerial Meeting
  2. EFBWWEU Social Dialogue review – publication of the European Commission package and joint statement of ETUFs
  3. Oxfam InternationalPan Africa Program Progress Report 2022 - Post Covid and Beyond
  4. WWFWWF Living Planet Report
  5. Europan Patent OfficeHydrogen patents for a clean energy future: A global trend analysis of innovation along hydrogen value chains

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us