11/17/2016 06:20 pm ET Updated Nov 22, 2016

What Russia Leaving The International Criminal Court Really Means

Russia's exit comes at a precarious time for the ICC.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. On Wednesday, Russia announced it would withdraw from t
Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters
Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. On Wednesday, Russia announced it would withdraw from the ICC.

The International Criminal Court in the Hague, the last resort for prosecuting individuals accused of crimes against humanity, is now losing a potential member. On Wednesday, Russia announced that it will remove its signature from the institution’s founding treaty and therefore completely withdraw its intention to join the court. 

Russia’s exit is the latest blow to the embattled ICC, which has long faced questions over its effectiveness and in recent months has seen several African nations revoke their membership in the court. Populist Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte added to the court’s woes on Thursday, calling the institution “useless” and claiming he may follow Russia’s lead.

The reasons for these countries leaving the court vary. In Russia’s case, the withdrawal is seen as a retaliation to the ICC stating that the Kremlin’s actions in Crimea amount to an international conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The court’s report was enough to make Putin issue an executive order canceling Russia’s participation in the court altogether.

But although Russia’s withdrawal is a highly symbolic challenge to the goal of the ICC as the world’s legislative body, experts say it doesn’t have much practical effect on the court. Russia is a signatory to the court’s founding Rome Statute, but never ratified the statute. Despite this, Russia’s exit is a worrying sign for how the court may be viewed.

“Symbolism is very important for a court that can only prosecute a handful of individuals,” Dr. Sarah Nouwen, a lecturer in law at the University of Cambridge, told The WorldPost. “The smaller the court’s jurisdiction, the more selective it will be seen as operating.”

The entrance of the International Criminal Court (ICC) is seen in The Hague, Netherlands, on March 3, 2011.
Jerry Lampen / Reuters
The entrance of the International Criminal Court (ICC) is seen in The Hague, Netherlands, on March 3, 2011.

Russia’s status with the court meant that it was not bound by the rules of the treaty, but it could also not actively oppose the goals and purpose of the ICC. In signaling that Russia will altogether withdraw from the treaty, the Kremlin can now openly challenge the court’s actions and even the existence of the court itself. Meanwhile, the court’s ability to try cases involving Russia will be essentially non-existent.

The United States took similar measures in 2002, withdrawing its support for the treaty after signing it two years earlier. Sudan and Israel have also removed their signatures from the Rome Statute, further weakening the reach of the court. Unlike the U.S. case, however, Russia’s withdrawal is the direct result of the court’s report implicating the country in international conflict.

Russia is the latest nation to quit the court, but this year has also seen South Africa, Burundi and Gambia all state they will withdraw membership ― all states that had ratified the treaty. The reasons for these departures are more complicated than Russia’s. A number of African politicians have for years alleged that the ICC is biased against their continent, pointing out that all 39 of the court’s indictments have been of people from African nations.

South Africa’s particular objection also involves an incident from last year, when the country refused to arrest Sudan’s authoritarian leader Omar Bashir on behalf of the ICC while he was on a diplomatic visit to Johannesburg. South Africa contends that the court’s desire for accountability can potentially come at the cost of peace and stability. 

Although the reasons for the recent exodus from the court differ, they amount to a worrying time for advocates of the ICC who hoped that the court would move toward universal membership. An expanded court would be one that could potentially investigate perpetrators in a wider range of conflicts and states, and act as a means of holding individuals accountable no matter where they reside.

“The importance of the withdrawals both of the state parties and of Russia’s intention to become a party suggests we’re going in an opposite trend ― that there’s going to be fewer and fewer members,” Nouwen says.

Fewer members would mean a weakened court both in jurisdiction and legitimacy. As the ICC grapples with these issues, Nouwen believes this is an essential time for the court and its advocates to rethink how the court can adapt to make sure it is a viable tool for supporting international law.