The International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor isn’t ruling out further charges against Russian President Vladimir Putin or his top officials for war crimes in Ukraine, but says further investigation and seeing the current charges — and any that follow — through to trial will require “stamina.”
Karim Khan made the comments during his first official visit to Canada as he seeks to shore up international support for the court’s mission to hold Putin accountable for the war crimes committed during his invasion of Ukraine.
A warrant was issued in March for the arrest of Putin and his children’s rights minister Maria Lvova-Belova over the forced deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.
“Our job is to follow the evidence, and we did that,” Khan told Eric Sorensen in an interview that aired Sunday on The West Block.
“I think now it requires stamina. It requires the international community to make sure that the law is rendered potent.”
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That stamina will also apply to the pursuing of further charges against Putin and other Kremlin officials and military leaders, he says, which will also require following the evidence.
“I said when I was in Bucha, behind St. Andrew’s Church with body bags in front of me, that Ukraine is a crime scene,” Khan said. “I’ve been to Borodyanka and Kharkiv and Kherson and other locations, and one sees a whole variety of devastation.
“I’m going to keep going to the best of my ability with the excellent work of the men and women of my office, with the partnerships we’re building with Ukraine and Canada and many other states, to make sure that the law is felt at this moment of need with greater impact than perhaps people thought was possible.”
Khan says successful war crimes prosecutions are typically lengthy, with several years often passing between an indictment and a conviction.
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After being charged in 2003 for his role in the Sierra Leone civil war, Liberian president and warlord Charles Taylor stood trial between 2007 and 2011 and was found guilty in 2012. Khan served as the head of Taylor’s defence in that trial, having worked as a legal defender for years before he was elected the ICC’s chief prosecutor in 2021.
It took even longer to convict those responsible for war crimes during the Bosnian and Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Both Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic were indicted in 1995, but weren’t arrested until over a decade later and were found guilty in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
Former Yugoslav and Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic died in his prison cell at the Hague in 2006 before his five-year-long trial could reach a verdict.
Khan also points to the Cambodia Tribunal, which was convened in 1997 to hold members of the Khmer Rouge responsible for the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s. Three convictions were won before the court dissolved last year.
“There’s no statute of limitations for war crimes,” Khan said.
“There is a presumption of innocence, but people that are innocent should answer the allegations. But if one flees and if one seeks to simply dispute jurisdiction, the allegation doesn’t go away.”
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Russia, which does not recognize the court, has said it considers the ICC warrants “legally void” and called the court’s move “outrageous and unacceptable.”
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“We’ve got a strong case,” Khan said, adding the choice for Putin is simple: “My call is answer the charges or release the children.”
The ICC counts on its 123 member states, including Canada, to execute its warrants. Khan notes the court does not have a police force, requiring members to align on the importance of international justice.
“As long as we’ve got the stamina to not lose focus, I think history tends to show that there can be justice,” he said. “But if we get distracted, if we de-prioritize it, then we can erode confidence in the rule of law.”
The first true test of that partnership may come in August, when Putin is expected to to attend the international BRICS summit in South Africa. The summit, which will include the leaders of Brazil, India and China, would be Putin’s first trip to an ICC member state since the arrest warrant was issued.
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Khan told reporters and parliamentarians in Ottawa on Friday that he is confident South African authorities will arrest Putin. But South Africa, which enjoys economic and diplomatic ties with Moscow, is reportedly urging Putin to attend the summit virtually to avoid breaking its pact with the ICC, according to the country’s Sunday Times.
South Africa is among 32 countries that have abstained from United Nations votes calling on Russia to end its invasion of Ukraine.
The country’s ambassador told the Canadian Press in an interview last month that South Africa is seeking to defuse the conflict through peace talks. He said Moscow’s security concerns regarding NATO should be addressed, though added Russia should be held accountable for its invasion and that Ukraine’s territorial integrity “must be maintained.”
Khan says it’s becoming more important for additional countries to join the ICC and show the world a collective commitment to justice, particularly amid increased global conflict and nuclear brinkmanship by countries like Russia, China and North Korea.
“We should feel that this is the opportunity to step up and apply the law with greater vigour everywhere in the world,” he said.
“Ukraine is an important testbed to make sure if we’ve got the collective will to do that.”
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