On being … more than symbolic

By Ingrid Sapona 

When the International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted Vladimir Putin and one of his ministers for war crimes and issued an arrest warrant, some were quick to label the act was “merely symbolic”. Others said the actions are meaningless because Russia doesn’t recognize the ICC and because the ICC has no power to enforce the warrants and (per its own rules) it can’t try defendants in absentia. 

I realize some may see such comments as simply pointing out the limitations at hand, or even as a way of keeping expectations – especially in the near term – in check. But, I worry they reflect a dangerous, growing nihilism that feeds disillusion and inaction. 

Instead of focusing on the challenges the ICC faces, I wish more folks would be discussing why the indictments matter. First and foremost, the indictments reinforce the idea that there are international rules and standards of behaviour that countries and leaders will be held accountable to. Though, sadly, there have been many examples of breaches of international law that have gone unpunished, that doesn’t mean international laws like the Geneva Conventions are meaningless. So, rather than writing off the work of the ICC, we should be heralding its efforts at investigating what is going on and for seeking justice for those it believes are victims of war crimes. 

On a more practical level, the indictment also matters because it circumscribes Putin’s ability to travel. This may not matter in the near term (while he is fully enjoying his power at home), if he does end up wanting to flee at some point, however, he’ll have to avoid the 123 countries that are signatories to the ICC’s Treaty of Rome.  

The deterrent effect of such indictments is also important. The work of the ICC puts countries and leaders – and their ministers and others who carry out their dirty work – on notice that their actions are of global concern and carry personal consequences. Though Putin (and Bashar al-Assad, for example) may continue to violate international law, others who are less well placed or powerful may think twice. Indeed, perhaps if Russia had paid a price on the international stage when it annexed Crimea in 2014, maybe Putin wouldn’t have felt as emboldened as he did when he invaded Ukraine in 2022. 

Concerted international climate change initiatives have similarly been criticized as being a waste of time because adherence to them is merely voluntary. But can’t the same criticism be lobbed at steps taken to limit the manufacture of nuclear weapons? Public cynicism and eyerolling is just unhelpful when the future of the planet is at stake. 

Over the past couple decades, under the auspices of the United Nations, climate change has been rigorously studied and the evidence has been widely accepted. The UN’s actions have resulted in the development of goals and standards aimed at reducing climate change. These types of initiatives give rise to the accepted social norms on which international law is based. And, as a result, many countries and companies around the world have voluntarily agreed to implement climate change programs. Just because there’s no international institutional means of holding countries and companies to their commitments, doesn’t mean these goals are merely symbolic. In fact, in different countries citizens are bringing actions in domestic courts seeking to force their governments to live up to climate commitments they’ve made. And of course, the flow of critical capital toward companies and countries that take their climate commitments seriously also functions as an enforcement mechanism. 

I know, war crimes and climate commitments are big topics. So big that it’s easy to feel they’re beyond our pay grade, so to speak. But if we quietly accept cynical responses that ascribe positive action as merely symbolic – or, worse yet – as meaningless, I fear the future will be pretty grim. 

If you agree with me, I invite you to keep the discussion alive – doing so will at least remind leaders that we’re paying attention and that their actions matter. 

© 2023 Ingrid Sapona


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