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Human rights groups around the world have condemned Russia's decision to withdraw from the International Criminal Court as an alarming signal of Moscow's "retreat" from international justice and institutions, and an unhappy portent for ordinary Russians worried about their human rights protections.
The Kremlin decree issued Wednesday will have little to no effect on ICC operations, international jurists said. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the Rome Statute two years after it created the court in 1998, but Moscow's parliament never ratified the pact.
However, Russia's action also follows several African nations' recent decisions to leave the court. "We are at a really key moment," said Elizabeth Evenson, Human Rights Watch's associate director of international justice. She spoke to VOA from The Hague.
Crimea ruling enraged Kremlin
The ICC, the first international legal body with jurisdiction to prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, enraged the Kremlin this week by issuing a report concluding that Russia carried out a military conflict against Ukraine in early 2014, and that the resulting annexation by Moscow of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula was an "occupation."
Russian state media said the ICC's verdict on what happened in Crimea was "absolutely contradicting reality," but the court's report was endorsed by the U.N. General Assembly's human rights committee. Putin acted the very next day, declaring that Russia would not remain a member of the Rome Statute because almost all ICC decisions were either politicized or biased against Moscow.
An ICC spokesman, Fadi El Abdallah, gave a neutral reaction to Russia's decision. "Membership of the Rome Statute is a voluntary and sovereign decision which is the prerogative of all states," Abdallah told VOA by email.
Amnesty International's Russia director, Sergei Nikitin, said even though Moscow's declaration would scarcely affect the ICC, "the decision is an alarming indication of Russia's unwillingness to cooperate with international justice systems."
Moscow's cooperation 'unraveling'
Tanya Lokshina, the Russia program director for Human Rights Watch in Moscow, agreed with the Amnesty official. Withdrawing from the ICC is symbolically important, she said, signaling the dramatic unraveling of Russia's cooperation with international justice and international institutions.
In signing the Rome Statute 16 years ago, "Russia demonstrated its good will to consider ratification," Lokshina said. " ... Now the Kremlin says, loud and clear, 'We don't like what the ICC is doing and we reject international justice.' It says much more about Russia's retreat from international justice and institutions, and the harm it will do to the human rights of its own citizens."
Rights groups have condemned Russia's repeated blocking of U.N. Security Council efforts to have the ICC investigate the Syrian conflict for possible war crimes committed by Syrian and Russian forces.
The ICC "is far from perfect," Amnesty's Nikitin said, but he derided Moscow's statements as "nothing more than a hypocritical attempt by Russia to withdraw from responsibility for some of their own failures."
'Court of last resort'
The ICC is "a court of last resort," spokesman Abdallah said, "designed not to replace national judicial systems but to intervene and complement them only when national authorities are not willing or not capable to bring justice to victims."
Russia's nonratification of the Rome Statute and now its withdrawal from the ICC will not have any significant effect, according to Kirill Koroteyev, legal director at the Memorial Human Rights Center in Moscow, since Russia and Russian nationals can face prosecution by the ICC under the jurisdiction granted to it.
Russia's renunciation of the court follows similar moves by South Africa, Burundi and Gambia. They contend the ICC is excessively focused on African states.
While the court is pursuing several cases related to African countries, it is also conducting investigations into and cases involving Afghanistan, Colombia, Cambodia and other states.
ICC defectors 'avoid prosecution'
Some states "apparently have been masquerading in recent years as countries devoted to criminal accountability," the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, said Wednesday in The Hague. "If they want to leave, then they should leave."
The U.N. official said he was not convinced that complaints about the court are based entirely on principle. "Quite the opposite," he added. Such objections appear "to aim more at protecting their leaders from prosecution."
The court has an arrest warrant out for Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, for crimes committed in Darfur. It also dropped a case against Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta for postelection violence in 2007 and 2008.
Without Russia, the International Criminal Court still has 124 member states. The United States withdrew its participation in 2002, during the George W. Bush administration, but re-established some cooperation under President Barack Obama. China and India also are among those nations that have declined to ratify the Rome Statute.
VOA's Margaret Besheer and Lisa Bryant contributed to this report.