Putin’s war crimes negate his legitimacy as a ruler

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Mikhail Klimentyev/Pool Sputnik Kremlin via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin in a March 25, 2022, photo.

“Leaders who are silent and do nothing are as guilty [as] and do worse than those who commit these horrific attacks.” — George Stamatis

The mass killings, torture, rapes and pillaging perpetrated by Russian troops upon Ukrainian civilians — events like none seen since World War II, perhaps — have shocked the world. President Biden was correct politically and morally to call Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal and to suggest that Putin be tried by a war crimes tribunal. This very statement, echoed by our partners in Europe, has stripped Putin of his legitimacy as a head of state, with little to no standing among the member states of the United Nations. 

Over the past century, many dictators, tyrants and thugs were not held responsible for attacks upon their own citizens and those of other countries. There is a long list of 20th-century leaders who received a pass politically for atrocities they perpetrated, but that changed when the Cold War ended and an “age of accountability” began with the advent of modern international criminal law.

The international community created a body of law, practice and procedure to prosecute those who commit atrocity crimes, including heads of state. The tribunals for the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone — using some of the principles laid down at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg — held accountable those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. The focus on the rule of law to restore international peace and security set important precedents.

An important precedent in this age of accountability came out of the United Nations Special Court for Sierra Leone, a hybrid international war crimes tribunal. In the case of former Liberian president Charles G. Taylor, the court’s appellate chamber ruled that head-of-state immunity does not shield a sitting head of state from prosecution for international crimes he or she commits while in office. Though the immunity still shields a head of state from other matters, the Taylor ruling shattered the centuries-long legal doctrine that shielded leaders from international crimes.

Taylor was the first sitting head of state in the modern era to be investigated, indicted and tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity. When the indictment was signed in March 2003 and unsealed that June, it stripped him of legitimacy as a head of state and he became an international pariah. Surely this will be Putin’s fate, hopefully soon.

Sitting presidents open themselves up to political, moral and legal liability — even the strongmen who have arisen around the world during the past decade and have set back the work of the tribunals and courts in Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone. The political interest in accounting for international crimes in Syria, Yemen, Venezuela and China, which is committing genocide against Uyghur Muslims, appeared to have waned because of a rise in populism, nationalism and a politically locked U.N. Security Council.  

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — an aggressive act and international crime in itself — has demonstrated to the world that only through the rule of law can we maintain international peace and security. The political interest in international tribunals appears to have increased markedly because of Putin’s stunning and brazen disregard for the law and world order. A sitting member of the U.N. Security Council, Putin is perpetrating a military campaign against a peaceful member of the United Nations.

Many agree with Biden’s characterization of Putin as a war criminal who should be held accountable in a court of law for his international crimes. The attacks by Putin’s forces on innocent civilians are barbaric, and the world now looks upon him with disdain. Regardless of how the conflict in Ukraine ends, Putin no longer has standing as a legitimate world leader and the Russian Federation should not continue to be a member of the U.N. Security Council.

Putin should be indicted and prosecuted for his crimes, openly and fairly before international courts. His time to pay will come, as it did for convicted warlord Charles Taylor. The rule of law is more powerful than the rule of guns.  

David M. Crane is a distinguished scholar-in-residence at Syracuse University College of Law and founder of the Global Accountability Network. He was the founding chief prosecutor of the U.N. Special Court for Sierra Leone, who investigated, indicted and tried former president Charles Taylor for international crimes.

Tags Biden Crimes against humanity Genocide International Criminal Court Joe Biden Russian invasion of Ukraine Vladimir Putin War crimes

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