Using Targeted Sanctions to Bring ICC Fugitives to Justice

By Alix Hirsh and Adam Keith

Targeted sanctions can support the diplomatic, political, and law enforcement work that is often necessary to hold serious human rights abusers accountable. Sanctions against the Congolese fugitive Bosco Ntaganda, for example, were part of a broader effort that led to his surrender to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2013 for trial on charges of war crimes. But governments have been inconsistent in using sanctions and other tools to help ensure that the ICC’s defendants are brought to court.

To help illustrate how and when sanctions have been used this way, Human Rights First is maintaining a tracker of the ICC’s cases across the 17 different situations (that is, specific crises or conflicts) where the court has investigated, noting which of the court’s defendants have been sanctioned and by whom.

The tracker now covers sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council, whose sanctions must be implemented by all U.N. members; as well as sanctions imposed by certain jurisdictions (the United States, United Kingdom, and European Union) that act autonomously.

Every case is different, but targeted sanctions can help lead to judicial accountability for fugitive war criminals in several ways:

  • The stigma of sanctions can make it less attractive for defendants’ allies to shield or deal with them and can thus help to politically weaken them.
  • Even if defendants have no assets abroad, sanctions that ban transactions with them can help disrupt their networks and increase the financial costs and risks of supporting the sanctioned persons.
  • Sanctions that ban fugitives from entering specific countries can pin them in place and prevent them from accessing resources or burnishing their image abroad.
  • Sanctioning defendants also demonstrates governments’ support for specific ICC investigations and can help the court withstand political attacks on its work.

Our tracker reveals some interesting patterns. Of the 52 distinct defendants the ICC has publicly charged, 21 have been sanctioned by at least one of the jurisdictions we are tracking. Most of the sanctioned defendants – 15 of the 21 – were sanctioned in four situations in which the U.N. Security Council had enacted country-focused sanctions programs: the Central African Republic, Libya, Côte d’Ivoire, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the two latter situations, all of the court’s defendants were sanctioned.

In several other ICC investigations, though, few or none of the defendants have seen sanctions. Only one defendant in each of the Darfur and Uganda situations has been sanctioned by any of the jurisdictions, and none have been sanctioned in the Georgia, Mali, and Kenya situations.  While the ICC has charged a mixture of defendants who were and were not already sanctioned, governments have rarely – on only three occasions – come along behind a new ICC arrest warrant to sanction a defendant who was previously unsanctioned. Russian President Vladimir Putin and the other Russian official charged by the ICC on March 17, for example, were sanctioned well before the court issued arrest warrants against them.

Sometimes there are good reasons for a disconnect between sanctions and ICC investigations.  Sanctions were unnecessary to secure some defendants’ presence in The Hague, because national authorities promptly arrested them or they voluntarily came to the court. Sanctions also may not remain appropriate over time; some former ICC defendants are still sanctioned long after the charges against them were dropped, and they should be delisted unless there are other ongoing bases for the sanctions.

On the other hand, six of the court’s defendants – three charged with atrocities in Darfur and three in Georgia – remain outside of ICC custody and unsanctioned despite seeming to be appropriate targets for at least some sanctions. The lack of a relevant sanctions program is no excuse, since the governments we are tracking now have Magnitsky-style programs that allow them to target human rights abusers anywhere in the world. For example, the U.S. government used its Global Magnitsky program to sanction one of the ICC’s Libya fugitives in 2019.

Indeed, the jurisdiction that has sanctioned the most ICC defendants is not an ICC member state, but rather the U.S. government. In addition to those individuals sanctioned by the UN Security Council, the U.S. has added six more: two charged with crimes in Libya, one in Darfur, one in the Central African Republic, and two Russians in the Ukraine investigation. The E.U. has sanctioned two additional defendants, and the U.K. government has sanctioned three.

Our tracker also covers another foreign policy tool to help promote accountability: the U.S. Department of State’s “War Crimes Rewards Program,” which offers money for information on certain fugitives’ whereabouts if that information leads to their arrests or convictions. This program generated leads that helped arrest fugitives from the UN’s tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. It has publicly offered rewards for ICC defendants as well – but only once, covering a set of five defendants in 2013.

U.S. officials recently said they intend to reinvigorate the rewards program. Outside experts encourage the ICC’s member states to create their own rewards program, which would help the court avoid depending on fickle U.S. support, but they have not done so.

Before the ICC issued arrest warrants against President Putin and another Russian official, the court’s most recent warrants were issued last summer, when it charged three men with war crimes related to Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia. The victims of atrocities in that conflict have seen little progress in pursuing justice, and governments have not used sanctions, rewards, or other tools to support this investigation.

In Georgia, as well as in the ICC’s steadily advancing Ukraine investigation and other situations around the world, Human Rights First will monitor the use of these tools and continue advocating for necessary action.



  • Alix Hirsh
  • Adam Keith

Published on April 14, 2023


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