Shocking atrocities in Ukraine, allegedly at the hands of Russian forces, have amplified calls to pursue war crimes charges against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Images of at least 20 bodies scattered in the street in Bucha, Ukraine emerged over the weekend after Russian forces withdrew from the area, prompting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to call for an end to Russian “war crimes”. Russia’s bombing of hospitals and a theater where children were seeking refuge, as well as its alleged use of cluster bombs and so-called vacuum bombs in densely populated areas with many civilians, have also been described as war crimes.
Here is a very broad overview of war crimes and the international justice movement.
What is a war crime?
The International Criminal Court has specific definitions of war crimes, which you can read in this guide edited by the ICC. Specifically, targeting civilian populations, violating the Geneva Conventions, targeting specific groups of people and more could be potential Russian war crimes.
There is a method of collecting evidence from testimonies, satellite images and other sources to discharge the burden of proof.
What is the International Criminal Court?
Located in The Hague, the Netherlands, and created by a treaty called the Rome Statute First brought before the United Nations, the International Criminal Court operates independently. Most countries are party to the treaty, but there are very important and notable exceptions, including Russia and the United States. And, by the way, Ukraine.
Who can be judged by the court?
The tribunal judges people, not countries, and focuses on those who hold the most responsibility: leaders and officials. Although Ukraine is not a member of the Court, it has previously accepted its jurisdiction. Putin could therefore theoretically be indicted by the court for having previously ordered war crimes in Crimea.
However, the ICC does not conduct trials in absentia, so he should either be handed over by Russia or arrested outside of Russia. It seems unlikely.
How does the ICC prosecute?
Judicial proceedings can be initiated in two ways: Either a national government or the UN Security Council can refer cases for investigation.
Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has a right of veto over the actions of the Council. It was the demands of 39 national governments, mostly European, that triggered this ongoing investigation.
How long do these surveys take?
If justice in general moves slowly, international justice barely moves. Investigations at the ICC take many years. Only a handful of convictions have been won.
How would an ICC case affect the conflict?
“For better or for worse, the ICC investigation may affect the diplomatic space for negotiations,” according to Ryan Goodman, a law professor at New York University and co-editor of Just Security, a online forum.
He argued that Putin and other Russians might not want to risk arrest if they travel outside the country.
The investigation could also weaken Putin at home, he added. “The Russians might realize that this is another reason why Putin can no longer serve their country.”