June 10, 2021

Being president should not protect Russian President Vladimir Putin from prosecution


A set of guidelines, known as the Nuremberg Principles, were created by the United Nations’ International Law Commission at the end of the World War II. They were first utilized during the Major War Criminals Trials that began November 20, 1945, and ended on October 1, 1946. Of the 24 Nazis indicted, 12 were sentenced to death by hanging, one in absentia, and the rest given prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life behind bars. Ten went to the noose on October 16, 1946. Remarkably, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring managed to cheat the hangman by taking a cyanide pill the night before.

In May 1988, in Brussels, I had the privilege of spending time in the company of the late Prof. Col. Gerald Draper, where I appeared as a witness before the Interna­tional Commission of Inquiry into the 1932-1933 Famine. Later I was a guest at his home in England. One of the first allied officers to arrive at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Col. Draper later served as a prosecutor at Nuremberg and then at other war crimes trials from 1945-1949. Among his trying tasks was the interrogation of SS-Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz. Höss was later hanged at Auschwitz on April 16, 1947. The gallows beam used for the purpose was still there when I ventured to set foot in this corner of hell on earth.

I remember Gerald Draper as a knightly man of faith, remarkably insightful, as someone who, as Prof. Michael Bothe pointed out in reviewing the now-hard-to-find book, “The Selected Works on the Laws of War” by the late Prof. Col. Draper, OBE, “was a realist who knew that it was not enough to make good laws: they had to be implemented.” I cannot pretend to know what Prof. Draper might think about the behavior of Vladimir Putin, the president-in-perpetuity of the so-called Russian “Federation.” But he would, I feel sure, still endorse the Nuremberg Principles he played no small role in shaping.

Crimes punished under international law include crimes against peace, namely:
(i) Planning, preparing, initiating or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances;
(ii) Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the acts mentioned under (i).

No serious student of international relations disputes that in February 2014 the Russian military invaded and illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimea, subsequently staging a Nazi-like “referendum” in this occupied territory. Aside from a few pariah stooges (e.g. North Korea, Syria, Cuba, Venezuela), the international community does not recognize Russia’s occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea, whose indigenous Tatar population have been subjected to widespread human rights abuses. In March 2014, Russian troops and local enablers invaded eastern Ukraine, starting a war of aggression that continues to this day, with thousands killed. On July 17, 2014, the Russians even shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, murdering 298, mostly Dutch, civilians. A Canadian, Andrei Anghel, was also on board, flying to Bali for a vacation with his German girlfriend, Olga Ioppa. The lives of these two promising students of medicine were snuffed out.

Many others have been made victims at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s command. Writing for The Washington Post in 2017, David Filipov reported on some of them, including Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist with Novaya Gazeta who was assassinated on October 7, 2006 – apparently her book, “Putin’s Russia,” which exposed how that country was being turned into a police state, was not on the KGB man in the Kremlin’s favorite reading list. And then there was Boris Nemtsov, shot in the back four times on February 27, 2015, after protesting Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. He was killed within sight of the Kremlin, yet his killer remains at large, despite Mr. Putin’s dubiously sincere claim about assuming “personal control” of the investigation. No wonder U.S. President Joe Biden recently described Mr. Putin as a “killer.”

Now it’s indisputable that Vladimir Putin was president of the Russian Federation in 2014, when the war against Ukraine was launched. His reign won’t end soon. In July 2020, having ruled for more than 20 years, Mr. Putin rearranged Russian affairs to ensure he stays in office until 2036. He’ll be 83 by then. If he makes it, history will record that he held onto power even longer than Stalin. That tyrant was 74 when, thankfully, he croaked.

Being president doesn’t, however, protect Mr. Putin. Anyone who commits an act that constitutes a crime under international law, even if they did so as a head of state, is not absolved of responsibility. Since it seems fairly evident that Mr. Putin has committed more than one such crime, he should be apprehended whenever he next leaves his imperial domains. Once in custody, he must then get a fair trial, based on the evidence and law. And he has the right to offer a defense. As one of the richest men in the world (a billionaire, remarkable in and of itself given his modest KGB pension, even topped up with his presidential salary) he can afford the best legal team out there. Perhaps he will even call Viktor Yanukovych as a character witness. Moscow’s satrap, this former president of Ukraine was deposed during the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution.

Subsequently, he absconded to Russia, taking up Russian citizenship. So, he should be available, although Viktor may be reluctant to show since he’s also wanted on charges of murder.

Once Mr. Putin has had a fair trial, justice should be done, just as it was with his Nazi predecessors, 75 years ago. Good laws, after all, have to be implemented.