Vladimir Bolton and John Putin

On 17 July, 2014, MH017 was shot down over the Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew. Putin’s response was quick and decisive: he declared that the person who perpetrated this act was a common murderer, that the Federation of Russian States would spare no effort in hunting him down, and hunting down the people who had sold him the weapon he used. He offered full cooperation with Interpol, and the Dutch and Malaysian authorities (most victims were Dutch and Malaysia), and –

No, he did none of the above. He squandered the opportunity for Russia to come out of this crime as the good guy. Instead, he covered up, stone-walled, and did everything possible to ensure that that common criminal walks free to this day. And that the relatives of those murdered will never see justice done.

Stories such as this are one reason that the world needs something like the International Criminal Court: there are all too many countries where the very people who are most guilty are those with the most impunity, and the relatives of their victims will never see justice done.

The US never signed up to the ICC. It has always resisted the idea that any American can be tried by a non-American court. But the US misses the point: it’s clear from the charter of the ICC that it will step in only where an individual country’s institutions have failed, or cannot be trusted to act with impartiality and due process. Despite its excesses and biases, US institutions more or less work, and can more or less be trusted to act with impartiality and follow due process. So, although the ICC may be investigating alleged war crimes by US soldiers in Afghanistan, it’s unlikely that those soldiers would ever be in the dock in the Hague: the ICC would submit its report to US authorities and let them get on with it.

Which makes it disappointing on two counts that John Bolton went into mega-arsehole mode in the UN earlier this week, withdrawing ICC funding, etc., etc. If US soldiers were committing war crimes in Afghanistan – and I’m not saying they were – then a US that practised the justice it preaches would say something like “bring it on, let us be part of this.” And second, to this day, we live in a world where tyrants get away with murder: the US has not merely reduced the change of bringing those criminals to book; it has sided with them. Opportunity squandered.


Update on 19 Sep. The UNHCR report on the Burmese army’s genocide of the Rohinga people was released today. What better demonstration that an ICC is needed?.