Annalena Baerbock opened her speech in New York with the words of Benjamin Ferencz, the chief prosecutor in the Nuremberg war crimes trials. “It pains me to see the world like this,” the German Foreign Minister quoted the lawyer, who died in April at the age of 103. “But to do nothing, not to try, that would be wrong.” Ferencz has fought all his life to bring justice to the victims of the most atrocious crimes. He has repeatedly pointed out that international law evolves at “key moments in history” in order to take account of new realities. And that’s what Baerbock called for again on Wednesday at the ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of the founding of the International Criminal Court: a reform of international law.
As early as January, the foreign minister announced that she would work to expand the jurisdiction of the criminal court for the crime of aggression. This may be prosecuted as a criminal offense since 2010. So far, however, the court’s hands are tied when the attacker is a state that has not recognized the so-called Rome Statute and when the UN Security Council is blocked from presenting such a case to the court as an alternative. In New York, Baerbock criticized that international law had a gap in the “primal crime”, the war of aggression. What kind of signal would it be if Putin got away with it, asked Baerbock. If that happens, “then our world in the 21st century will be a place where states live in fear of their larger neighbor”.
“Responsibility to Try”
In March, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against Putin and the Russian Commissioner for the Rights of the Child for alleged war crimes. They are said to be responsible for the deportation of Ukrainian children and youth to Russia, which Moscow calls “evacuations”. The arrest warrant was an important sign, said Baerbock on Wednesday in New York. He emphasized that “this brutal war of aggression is being waged primarily against the weakest”. But Baerbock wants to start with her proposal, which has so far been largely a solo effort, on the legal basis. We are now at a “key moment in history” that Chief Prosecutor Ferencz spoke of. “We have a responsibility to try.” The majority needed for a reform of the Rome Statute is not yet foreseeable.
In this speech, Baerbock did not comment on her second proposal regarding the prosecution of Russian crimes in Ukraine: the hybrid special tribunal, which should hold the Russian leadership accountable under Ukrainian law but with international judges. After the German foreign minister spoke about this in The Hague in January, there was opposition from other EU countries. Mainly because Putin would enjoy immunity if another state tried him. According to the federal government, however, the other G-7 countries, which also include France, Italy, the United States – which has not recognized the criminal court itself – and Japan also support the initiative.
Baerbock’s second core topic in New York was the Ukrainian children who had been abducted to Russia. “Ever since I heard about these crimes, I can’t stop imagining what it would be like if my two daughters were to do the same,” said the Foreign Minister in her subsequent speech to the UN Security Council. It is estimated that Russia has deported thousands of children. Then the Foreign Minister appealed to the cohesion of the United Nations. Precisely because opinions differ on other aspects of the war, Baerbock said. If an aggressor doesn’t even stop at children, a tragedy becomes “horrible inhumanity”.
As has been customary since the beginning of the war, the Russian UN envoy dismissed the accusations made by the assembled members and blamed Ukraine for the escalation. Baerbock, who spoke afterwards, sharply rejected this: Russia can lie to itself, but not to the world. They saw the Russian atrocities.