Everyone is talking about war crimes in Ukraine. What are they and how will the prosecution work?

From the first days of the war in Ukraine, President Vladimir Zelensky accused Russia of war crimes. This accusation was repeated by US officials and their allies as the conflict progressed.

More recently, gruesome images of bodies in plainclothes and reports of alleged atrocities in areas outside of Kiev have sparked new allegations of war crimes and calls for justice by the United States, the European Union and human rights organizations.

But what is a war crime? And how can the perpetrators be brought to justice?

What are war crimes?

Under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, war crimes cover a range of conduct in armed conflict. These include deliberate attacks on civilians, torture or inhuman treatment, attacks on areas that are not part of military facilities, and intentional attacks on schools, hospitals and religious buildings that are not part of military facilities. ects.

The International Criminal Court defines war crimes as “grave breaches” of these conventions that have been ratified by all member states of the United Nations.

Ukraine, the United States and their allies accuse Russian forces of indiscriminately attacking civilians, but Russia has repeatedly denied it. Ukraine has also accused Russia of genocide in the Interior Ministry separately from war crimes for its actions in Bucha near Kyiv.

Although war crimes charges are common signs of war, experts say.

“It would be a very unusual war if there were no war crimes on either side,” said William Shabas, a professor of international law at Middlesex University in London who was also a member of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

How are countries and people held accountable?

There are several ways to hold countries and individuals accountable for war crimes. The Interior Ministry, established in 2002 in The Hague, the Netherlands, was created to investigate and prosecute war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity and crimes of aggression.

Neither the United States, nor Russia, nor Ukraine are parties to the agreement under which the court was established. However, Ukraine has given permission to the Interior Ministry to consider the alleged atrocities committed on its territory since the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014.

In addition to the Interior Ministry, the UN has in the past set up special tribunals to prosecute war crimes, as it did after the Balkan conflict in the 1990s.

In Bucha react
On Sunday in Ukraine, people gather at a mass grave.Sergei Supinsky / AFP via Getty Images

“I think there will be a division of labor that Ukraine will investigate all the crimes it can and they will encourage the Interior Ministry to look at some senior players and see if they can issue international arrest warrants for those people who can travel and Ukraine will not get them arrested, ”said Andrew Clapham, author of War and Professor of International Law at the Geneva Postgraduate School in Switzerland.

“The most responsible and serious crimes will be investigated and prosecuted by the Interior Ministry, and Ukraine will prosecute others.”

How is evidence collected in Ukraine?

Ukraine is already gathering evidence of war crimes committed during the war.

The prosecutor’s office, local law enforcement agencies and the State Emergency Service are conducting an investigation after the shelling and explosions, recording evidence at the crime scene, according to the Prosecutor General’s Office. They are also questioning witnesses along with teams from Poland and Lithuania.

The European Union has also said it will work with Ukraine to gather evidence and investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Damaged house in Bucha
A badly damaged apartment building in Bucha, Ukraine, on Monday.Alexey Furman / Getty Images

In addition to evidence-gathering groups, the Ukrainian government has set up a website where people can post information about the crimes they have witnessed. More than 6,000 reports have already been received, the Prosecutor General’s Office reports.

Outside of the Ukrainian government’s efforts, the International Criminal Court also launched an investigation into war crimes in early March, and people can share their experiences on the Interior Ministry’s website.

Who can be held accountable?

The investigation of war crimes can focus on soldiers, commanders and heads of state.

The Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine has already identified more than 200 representatives of Russia’s military and political leadership, whom they suspect of war crimes or other offenses. Some have already been detained, but the prosecutor’s office does not specify how many.

“If you are going to accuse people at the highest level – not the guy who was arrested on the battlefield as a prisoner of war, but the colonel who ruled Mariupol or something – you have to show that the guy was accused of what was going on there, and participated in the attack, ”said Stephen Rapp, who headed the State Department’s Global Criminal Justice Department from 2009 to 2015.

What are the terms of arrests and prosecutions?

Gathering evidence, obtaining charges against individuals and ultimately prosecuting them is a long and difficult process that is unlikely to take place in international courts in the near future.

“This is a long-term game in terms of international prosecution,” said Joseph Powderley, an associate professor of international public law at the Center for International Legal Studies in Grocia, Leiden University. “They are almost always ex post. This is something that needs to be documented, collected and stored so that the perpetrators can be brought to justice in the future. ”

War crimes have no statute of limitations, which means people can be prosecuted at any time.

“You can see the courts in the coming decades,” Clapham said. “It’s not about speed. The point is to identify people who are criminals, and then understand that one day responsibility will come and there will be an opportunity to tell the full truth. “

Who has been prosecuted for past war crimes?

The Interior Ministry has successfully convicted eight people, all for crimes committed in Africa.

Among the convicts is Thomas Lubanga Dilio, who was arrested in 2006 in March 2012 was found guilty of conscription and conscription of children under the age of 15 for the armed conflict in the Congo. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison and released in 2020. Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi was found guilty in September 2016 of deliberately directing attacks on religious and historic buildings in Timbuktu, Mali, in 2012. He was sentenced to nine years in prison, which was later reduced to two years and is due to be released in September.

The Interior Ministry is not the only international tribunal to hear war crimes. The UN has set up its own tribunal to deal with war crimes committed during the Balkan conflicts in the 1990s. Her term lasted from 1993 to 2017, and 91 people were convicted in court, including Ratko Mladic, who was convicted of some of the worst atrocities of the war, including the killing of 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica. He is serving a life sentence.

After World War II, 18 leading Nazis were convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany.

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