Putin is unlikely to face a war crimes trial, but the courts have other options: NPR

Editor’s note: Note that some of the images in this story are graphic.


Soldiers march among destroyed Russian tanks in Bucha on the outskirts of Kyiv in Ukraine on Sunday.

Rodrigo Abd / AP


hide the caption

switch the caption

Rodrigo Abd / AP


Soldiers march among destroyed Russian tanks in Bucha on the outskirts of Kyiv in Ukraine on Sunday.

Rodrigo Abd / AP

Even before the outrage over the hundreds of civilians killed in Bucha, Ukraine accused Russia of committing a number of war crimes, and many experts supported these allegations.

President Biden on Monday called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to confront Fr. war crimes court.

“You saw what happened in Bucha,” Biden said. “He is a war criminal. But we must gather information. We must continue to supply Ukraine with the weapons needed to continue the struggle. And we must gather all the details to make it real. to have a trial for war crimes, ”he said.

But experts warn that bringing Putin to justice will be difficult and long – and even harder to force him to take any action.

Here is a summary a legal situation where the international community is looking for ways to hold Russia accountable for the killings, widespread destruction and human rights violations recorded in Ukraine.


President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday inspects the site of a recent battle in Bucha. Russia has faced a new wave of condemnation after evidence emerged that what appeared to be the deliberate killing of civilians in Ukraine.

Ephraim Lukacki / AP


hide the caption

switch the caption

Ephraim Lukacki / AP

Can Putin bear a separate responsibility? What about Russia?

It is “unlikely” that Putin will face trial for war crimes at the highest international level Kelebogile Zvobgofounder and director of the Laboratory of International Justice, who is an associate professor of management at William & Mary.

A number of international judicial institutions have jurisdiction over abuses in which Putin’s military is accused in Ukraine. But these courts differ in how they work and how their decisions are enforced – and few of them have leverage over Russia.

The International Court of Justice in The Hague

The UN Supreme Court was established to resolve interstate disputes, not to decide on individual cases. Any decisions it makes are enforced by the UN Security Council, but Russia has a veto in this group.

Ukraine has officially asked the court to order Russia to end the war against Ukraine at the beginning of the conflict, citing the 1948 International Convention on the Prohibition of Genocide. But Russian representatives did not appear at the hearing. The court granted Ukraine’s request, but it is unable to enforce Russia’s order to stop its invasion.


Journalists are standing at the mass grave in Bucha on Monday.

Rodrigo Abd / AP


hide the caption

switch the caption

Rodrigo Abd / AP

International Criminal Court

A few days after Russian troops invaded Ukraine, the Interior Ministry’s chief prosecutor said there were “reasonable grounds to believe” that war crimes and crimes against humanity were being committed in Ukraine, and a formal investigation would begin.

Theoretically, the Interior Ministry would be a court that could deal with any possible prosecution of Putin, Zwobgo said. But she added that “they do not have the best experience because no one wants to hand over heads of state.”

“It’s a criminal court. It’s really about individuals. But the problem is that you really have to get people to the place,” Zwobgo said. “Who would be willing to arrest and extradite Putin to The Hague if he even left Russia?” She added.

European Court of Human Rights

The International Court of Justice was established by the Council of Europe to hear cases against individuals and groups, as well as countries. But Russia has shown only a pointful implementation of its past decisions. And in mid-March, when Russia was expelled from the Council of Europe altogether, the chances of compliance in the future became even lower.

For Zvobga, Russia’s withdrawal from the council – and the court’s jurisdiction – is a lost opportunity.

“You could say, well, they weren’t going to execute any decision, so it doesn’t matter,” Zwobgo said. “But I think that even a simple responsibility, sentencing for Ukraine, for Ukrainian victims would be really useful in terms of recognition – which can be extremely strong.” This is true, she added, even if the nation refuses to adhere to remedies.

Zvobga said she believes the International Court of Justice will consider the charges against Russia, but warned that the trial is likely to take years and years before a final decision is made.

As an example, she noted that in March the IJC issued arrest warrants in the case of alleged war crimes in and around South Ossetia (Georgia) – a case that began with an examination in 2008, when the action took place.


A woman walks with her cat next to the corpses of her husband and brother killed in Bucha.

Rodrigo Abd / AP


hide the caption

switch the caption

Rodrigo Abd / AP

Are there any other possibilities to bring charges against the Putin regime?

“My best option, and I think the great promise of international justice for abuses in Ukraine will be European courts,” which use the doctrine of universal jurisdiction to persecute Russians, Zwobgo said.

Universal jurisdiction is the legal concept that a country’s domestic judiciary can hear cases against people accused of serious crimes, such as war crimes and genocide, even if the alleged crime took place outside the territory of the persecuting country. The rationale for this idea is that the authority and duty to prosecute serious crimes goes beyond international borders, because people who commit such acts are considered the enemy of the human race “Enemies of all mankind.”

The doctrine was used when Spanish courts tried dictator Augusto Pinochet for abuses when he ruled Chile; most recently, this allowed a German court to sentence a Syrian intelligence officer to life in prison for the killings and torture that took place in Damascus.

“We see countries like Poland that are already launching an investigation and have already stated that they are interested in fighting war crimes and other atrocities,” Zwobgo said.

Another approach to bringing the Russians to justice would be an attempt by the United States and its allies, such as France, Britain and Germany, to set up a special international tribunal outside the UN, similar to the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes trials. But such an initiative would pose a number of problems – including issues of legality Zwobgo’s view.


A dog is drinking water near the destroyed Russian armored vehicles in Bucha.

Rodrigo Abd / AP


hide the caption

switch the caption

Rodrigo Abd / AP

What exactly is a war crime?

The differences between war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity depend on how widespread and systematic the actions are, as well as on their intent.

Pierre-Richard Prosper, a war crimes prosecutor and former U.S. special envoy for war crimes, said the international community should be more concerned about responding to the situation in Ukraine, rather than stigmatizing what is happening there.

“We need to focus on the action itself,” he told the Morning Edition NPR. “It is clear that atrocities are being committed, it is clear that … there are violations of the laws of war.”

“This should be enough for countries – not just the West, not just the United States, but the entire international community – to act,” he said.

It can be difficult to distinguish between various serious crimes that are prohibited in a number of legal instruments, such as the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

A war crime may include premeditated murder or abuse such as torture, destruction of property, sexual violence or forced relocation during conflict. This can be done by individual soldiers, but it does not necessarily reflect their military or country.

In contrast, crimes against humanity often mean widespread attacks with a deliberate direction. Both killings and other acts can be viewed as genocide if a group becomes a target because of their racial, ethnic, national or other identifying characteristics – with the intention of destroying part or all of that group.


A woman mourns the death of her husband, who was killed in Bucha.

Rodrigo Abd / AP


hide the caption

switch the caption

Rodrigo Abd / AP

How should the world respond to the signs of atrocities?

The word genocide can provoke a strong reaction in people, perhaps because of atrocities such as the Holocaust or others genocides in Rwanda and elsewhere.

If a crime qualifies as genocide, it should also provoke international reactions, such as “responsibility to defend”. The concept suggests that outside of any alliances, the world community has a responsibility to “end the worst forms of violence and persecution” and protect at-risk populations, the UN said.

Prosper said international courts could move slowly to make a decision, but he added that it was a person countries need to move much faster.

“If you see civilians being killed, their hands tied behind their backs and shot, that should be enough,” he said, referring to scenes in Bucha. “We have seen the international community take action in other areas when civilians were in danger. So it shouldn’t be different. “

These actions should be aimed at supporting the Ukrainian government and helping it defend itself, he said.

“We need to continue to cover the actions of the Russians, the Russian government, because we need to make sure that it is indisputable,” Prosper said.

“I hope it will not only restrain the action, but also promote the accountability action. I hope it will promote dissent from within, where the Russian people themselves see that there is a problem.”

Leave a Comment