What It Would Take to Try Putin for War Crimes in Ukraine

Images of bodies of Ukrainian citizens lying dead and strewn in the streets of Bucha have led to accusations of war crimes and international condemnation of Russia.

The International Criminal Court has begun investigating the ever-increasing evidence of war crimes taking place. Ukraine has also formed a team to gather evidence.

But what is the definition of a war crime? Do Russia’s alleged crimes qualify?

War crimes — what are they?

Although it may seem contradictory, as the International Committee of the Red Cross puts it, “even war has rules.”

The rules for war are contained in treaties called the Geneva Conventions and other agreements and international laws. According to the conventions, infrastructure is vital to survival, and civilians cannot be deliberately attacked.

Recently, a U.K. war crimes lawyer was appointed to help Ukraine. The Geneva Conventions layout specifics and the banning of weapons because of the appalling and indiscriminate suffering they cause.

These weapons include biological and chemical weapons as well as anti-personnel landmines.

Additionally, wounded and sick must receive care, including wounded soldiers, and have rights as prisoners of war. It also defines offenses such as rape, mass persecution, and murder as “crimes against humanity.”

What is genocide?

International law defines genocide as the deliberate killing of an ethnic, national, religious, or racial group to destroy the group in part or entirely.

Genocide is a specific war crime larger than the killing of civilians. Genocide must be proved to be the intent to destroy the group.

What are the alleged war crimes in Ukraine?

Journalists and investigators have found and are documenting what appears to be evidence of the deliberate murder of civilians in Bucha, a town located near Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, and other areas.

Ukrainian forces, as well as journalists in Ukraine, have found mass graves, as well as evidence of civilians who were shot dead while bound at their hands and feet.

President Joe Biden has called for a war crimes trial for Russian President Vladimir Putin, believing he is a “war criminal.”

“This guy is brutal,” Biden said. Prime Minister of the UK, Boris Johnson, also voiced his outrage and said that the brutal attacks are “yet more evidence” of war crimes on Ukraine by Russian forces.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Russia had “destroyed apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, critical infrastructure, civilian vehicles, shopping centers, and ambulances” — which the U.S. has said point to war crimes.

Before discovering the horrific killings in Bucha, a Russian strike on a theater housing refugees in Mariupol was thought to be the first location of mass killing of civilians by Russia.

The word “children” was written in large letters on the ground on the sides of the theater. Ukraine also referred to Russia’s airstrike on a Mariupol hospital as a war crime.

There is mounting evidence that Russians have used cluster bombs — munitions that separate into lots of ‘bomblets’ — that hit civilian areas in Kharkiv.

The U.K. government has also claimed that Russia has used thermobaric explosives, creating massive vacuums by sucking up oxygen. Although cluster bombs are not banned, their deliberate use against or near civilians would break the rules of war.

How suspected war criminals can be prosecuted

There have been war crime tribunals since World War II — including the investigation of war crimes during the break-up of the country of Yugoslavia.

Another body was conferred to prosecute individuals responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Now, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Criminal Court (ICC) have rules that uphold war laws.

The ICC investigates and prosecutes war crimes for individuals who are not before individual states’ courts. The ICC is the permanent, modern-day successor to Nuremberg, where key Nazi leaders were prosecuted in 1945.

Nuremberg solidified the principle that a special court can be set up to uphold international laws.

The rules of the ICJ are upheld in disputes between states. However, it cannot prosecute specific individuals. Currently, Ukraine has begun a case against Russia.

If the ICJ rules against Russia, the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) will be responsible for enforcing the ruling. However, with Russia as one of the Security Council’s five permanent members, any proposal to sanction it could be vetoed.

Can the ICC prosecute the offenses in Ukraine?

British lawyer Karim Khan, QC, is the ICC’s chief prosecutor and says there is reasonable reason to believe war crimes have been carried out in Ukraine.

Investigators can also investigate past allegations and present — which stretch back to 2013 before Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. If evidence is found, the prosecutor will judge the ICC to issue arrest warrants to bring individuals to trial at The Hague.

Can Putin and other leaders be prosecuted?

While it is far easier for a soldier to be charged with a war crime than the leader who ordered it, Hugh Williamson of Human Rights Watch says there is mounting evidence of summary executions and other abuses by Russian forces.

Williamson says establishing a “chain of command” is crucial for future trials.

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