goldsmith3_LEONARDO MUNOZAFP via Getty Images_trumpindictment Leonardo Munoz/AFP via Getty Images

Putin and Trump in the Dock?

The recent indictments of Russian President Vladimir Putin and former US President Donald Trump highlight the law’s growing, and potentially dangerous, dominion in politics. Either case could well result in far-reaching negative unintended consequences that would compound the injustices they seek to correct.

CAMBRIDGE – The New York grand jury’s indictment of former US President Donald Trump for bookkeeping crimes relating to hush money paid to the adult film actress Stormy Daniels follows upon the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant, two weeks ago, for Russian President Vladimir Putin for the war crime of deporting children from Ukraine. These cases highlight the law’s growing, and potentially dangerous, dominion in politics – domestic and international.

Both events are groundbreaking. Trump’s indictment is the first for any president, current or former, in United States history. Similarly, international courts have issued only a handful of arrest warrants for heads of state, and never for the leader of a major power. These legal actions will set important precedents and could have enormous consequences, even if neither one results in a criminal conviction. The question is whether the precedents will be happy ones, and whether the consequences will be positive on balance.

Since the Nuremberg Trials after World War II, the goal of international criminal law has been to institutionalize legal accountability for wartime activities. Most international criminal tribunals have been under the thumb of the United Nations Security Council, which meant that they could not be used against that body’s five permanent veto-wielding members (China, France, Britain, Russia, and the United States). But the ICC, by design, is not beholden to the UN. Although Russia never consented to the ICC’s jurisdiction, Ukraine has, and the ICC is proceeding on that basis.

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