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US leader Joe Biden has been declaring that Russian leader Vladimir Putin should face trial as a war criminal. However, both countries have permanent seats on the UN Security Council, which seems to make such a trial unlikely.

Has it ever happened that any such leader has been tried for war crimes while their country holds an effective hegemony?

Broadening the question, have there been international trials of war crimes committed by any citizen of a permanent Security Council member?

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    War crime tribunals for leaders seems pretty rare.
    – Joe W
    Apr 4, 2022 at 19:05
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    The Nuremberg and Tokyo trials are the only examples that come to my mind and of course, those only occurred in the wake of military defeat. Apr 4, 2022 at 19:20
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    Obviously no when it comes to leaders. US troops were tried for war crimes by their own courts, sometimes. It's not clear if that's what you're asking though. International trials are not common. Generally they are organized when there's some assumption justice wouldn't be served otherwise. Apr 4, 2022 at 21:50
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    There was a tribunal in Hague for Yugoslavian wars, as well.
    – aca
    Apr 5, 2022 at 9:41
  • @Burt_Harris WWII crimes predate the UN security council...
    – einpoklum
    Apr 5, 2022 at 23:34

4 Answers 4

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The question seems to assume that a security council resolution is necessary to try somebody for war crimes. This is incorrect.

The ICC is at liberty to investigate crimes within its jurisdiction, which is described in article 12 of the Rome Statute as follows:

  1. A State which becomes a Party to this Statute thereby accepts the jurisdiction of the Court with respect to the crimes referred to in article 5.
  2. In the case of article 13, paragraph (a) or (c), the Court may exercise its jurisdiction if one or more of the following States are Parties to this Statute or have accepted the jurisdiction of the Court in accordance with paragraph 3: (a) The State on the territory of which the conduct in question occurred or, if the crime was committed on board a vessel or aircraft, the State of registration of that vessel or aircraft; (b) The State of which the person accused of the crime is a national.
  3. If the acceptance of a State which is not a Party to this Statute is required under paragraph 2, that State may, by declaration lodged with the Registrar, accept the exercise of jurisdiction by the Court with respect to the crime in question.

Since Ukraine has accepted the jurisdiction of the ICC for all war crimes that occurred in its territory, this condition is met, and the ICC has, in fact, opened an investigation.

As for precedent:

During the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, Slobodan Milošević was charged by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) with war crimes in connection with the Bosnian War, the Croatian War of Independence, and the Kosovo War. He became the first sitting head of state to be charged with war crimes.

Of course, arresting a head of state met with practical difficulties. However, after he fell from power in 2000, he was apprehended by local authorities, and, after significant international pressure, extradited and stood trial. He died in 2006 before a verdict was reached.

You are correct that no head of state of a permanent security council member has ever been tried for war crimes, but that may simply be because none have ever been accused of such. Since the security council plays no role in such proceedings, and apprehending the suspect practically requires cooperation of local authorities even if that nation doesn't have veto power in the security council, I don't see why the veto power would matter.

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    While the ICC could bring Russian soldiers and official to trial I doubt they could bring Russian leaders to trial.
    – FluidCode
    Apr 4, 2022 at 21:16
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    Why? Milosevic was a leader, too.
    – meriton
    Apr 4, 2022 at 21:36
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    It's fairly common political sniping in the US to assert various Presidents are war criminals, from Bush (either one) to Obama. Though I have no idea if there's any life to such a view outside of the US (or even the most poisonous sectors of US politics, for that matter). Apr 4, 2022 at 23:26
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    @meriton "Why? Milosevic was a leader, too." In that case there was evidence of direct connections of Milosevic with the hard line officers that carried out the massacres. In a bigger country with a long command chain and a lot of people involved it would be a lot more difficult to prove the leader direct responsibility.
    – FluidCode
    Apr 5, 2022 at 11:36
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    @meriton BTW I forgot to add that to bring a leader to trial evidence is not enough. International willingness to enforce an indictment is as much important. You can see the case of Omar al Bashir, Sudan and other African countries refused to enforce the requests coming from the Hague and he never stood trial there. For example I would never imagine China apprehending Putinduring a state visit and send him to the Hague.
    – FluidCode
    Apr 5, 2022 at 11:52
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With regard to the title question of whether a leader of one of the UNSC permanent members has ever been tried for war crimes, the answer is no. The broader question of whether a citizen of these states has ever been tried for war crimes in an international court, however, has at least one example.

Ante Gotovina, who served in the Croatian War of Independence was tried by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for war crimes allegedly committed during Operation Storm. Gotovina had previously served in the French Foreign Legion, and gained French citizenship in 1979. He was convicted in 2011 and sentenced to 24 years imprisonment, however this decision was reversed on appeal in 2012, and he was acquitted.

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neither Russia, Ukraine nor the US are part of the International Criminal Court, so I don't think they can be tried if they are not members.

"However, in cases where the alleged crime took place on the territory of a state not party to the Statute, the ICC may only exercise jurisdiction if such a state willingly submits to the jurisdiction of the ICC or if the case is referred to the prosecutor by the United Nations Security Council under Article 13(b) of the Statute." Source: https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2021/05/utkarsh-dubey-icc-jurisdiction-over-nonparty-states/

so basically unless the UN votes to condemn a person or military or group and refers them to the ICC, the ICC's jurisdiction does not apply there. Knowing that any such action would be vetoed by UN members with veto power, it is unlikely that such thing can happen realistically

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    I don't think that matters otherwise countries would just leave the organization to avoid the trials. Not being a member just means that they won't willingly give the person over for trial.
    – Joe W
    Apr 4, 2022 at 19:29
  • As for your recent edit all the crimes are happening in Ukraine which also happens to not be a member. It isn't so much a matter of Russia being a member or not as the crimes in question are not happening in Russia.
    – Joe W
    Apr 4, 2022 at 19:31
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    Note that jurisdiction is determined by the location of the crime, not the nation of origin of the perpetrator. Ukraine has given the ICC jurisdiction for all war crimes that occur in its territory.
    – meriton
    Apr 4, 2022 at 19:31
  • Thanks, Zmelgar, and welcome. The lawfare article is very complete but deals with legal theory, where I'm looking for any past examples. P.S. you might edit your answer and put the Lawfare link in. Apr 4, 2022 at 19:47
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    ICC has claimed jurisdiction anywhere in the world, but a number of countries (most notably the US) have denied it that jurisdiction on the territory of the US and US allies or in any cases involving armed forces of the US or of the US allies. This question explores various legal theories of what would happen if ICC tried to assert its jurisdiction in the US.
    – wrod
    Apr 4, 2022 at 20:14
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Slobodan Milosevic, while on trial by International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia did try to call Prime minister Tony Blaire, President Bill Clinton, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and other prominent western leaders as witnesses to his trial, with the intention of demonstrating that they have committed genocide in Balkans, see, e.g., here and here:

Former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic sought to open a de facto parallel war crimes trial today, saying he would call former president Bill Clinton, former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright and other prominent Americans to respond to his allegations that the United States carried out policies of genocide in the Balkans.

"I shall indeed avail myself of my right to examine and cross-examine witnesses," Milosevic said during the second day of his opening statement in his trial for alleged war crimes. He then ticked off names of potential witnesses that read like a who's who of world leaders from the 1990s.

However, the highest ranking US official that testified in the court was General Wesley Clark, who commanded the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia and who was at the time running for the US presidency.

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