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Calls for Russia to be held accountable for war crimes in Ukraine have intensified in response to reports of mass civilian killings in areas that had previously been held by Russian forces.
“The Russian military and those who gave them orders must be brought to justice immediately,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky demanded during an address to the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday. President Biden said Monday that images of bodies lying in the streets of Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, reinforced his administration’s belief that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “a war criminal.”
The U.S. State Department formally accused Russia of war crimes nearly two weeks ago after reviewing reports that Russian forces had deliberately targeted civilian sites, including schools, hospitals and a theater that was being used as a bomb shelter. Russian soldiers have also been accused of committing a long list of other atrocities, many of which are being painstakingly documented by international agencies and independent watchdogs.
The phrase “war crimes” is often used as a general term to describe a broad range of horrifying acts committed during a conflict. But for something to be prosecuted as a war crime, it must fit a much more specific definition as outlined in a number of international treaties — most notably the Geneva Conventions. The primary venue for war crimes trials is the International Criminal Court, an independent legal body with the authority to prosecute international crimes that individual nations are unable or unwilling to prosecute themselves. The ICC opened an investigation into Russia’s actions in Ukraine at the end of February, just a few days after the invasion began.
Why there’s debate
Though there’s strong evidence that Russia’s actions in Ukraine fit the legal definition of war crimes, many international law experts say there’s ample reason to doubt that high-ranking Russian officials — let alone Putin himself — will be held accountable. The ICC and other international courts are bound by a complex web of procedures and jurisdictional limitations that can mean even the most egregious actions may not lead to an actual trial. Even cases that do go forward can take an enormously long time, sometimes decades, to adjudicate. Because of this, many experts say, accusations of war crimes aren’t likely to curb Putin’s brutal tactics.
Others see value in pursuing war crimes charges, even if the likelihood of convicting Putin is low. At the most basic level, they argue, failing to charge Putin and other high-ranking Russians would send a message that the international community is willing to look the other way in even the most extreme circumstances. They also say that war crimes charges would serve to further isolate Putin, undermine his attempts to use misinformation to legitimize his invasion, and possibly convince rank-and-file Russian soldiers to defy orders out of fear of prosecution.
There are concerns, though, that accusing Putin of war crimes could make him even more dangerous. Some experts argue that if Putin fears he may face prosecution once the war ends, he’s likely to reject any diplomatic resolution to the conflict and go all in on an even more vicious assault on Ukraine.
It’s unlikely that the main architects of the war will face any accountability
“You’ve got to prove that they knew or they could have known or should have known. There’s a real risk you end up with trials of mid-level people in three years and the main people responsible for this horror … will get off the hook.” — Philippe Sands, international law expert, to Associated Press
Only military force can protect the Ukrainian people from Russian atrocities
“The unavoidable truth is that the way to protect civilians from war crimes during ongoing war is not merely to threaten punishment for crimes sometime in the future but to put a stop to them now. And in Putin’s case, this stopping power can come only from military force, not solely from judges.” — Charli Carpenter, Foreign Policy
Any efforts to hold Putin accountable are undermined by American hypocrisy
“Justice is not the point. Politicians like Biden, who do not accept responsibility for our well-documented war crimes, bolster their moral credentials by demonizing their adversaries. They know the chance of Putin facing justice is zero. And they know their chance of facing justice is the same.” — Chris Hedges, Salon
War crimes accusations could prompt even more brutality from Putin
“It is also possible that international efforts seeking to hold leaders responsible for human rights crimes could backfire. Leaders who face the prospect of punishment once a conflict ends have an incentive to prolong the fighting. And a leader who presides over atrocities has a strong incentive to avoid leaving office, even if that means using increasingly brutal methods — and committing more atrocities — to remain in power.” — Joseph Wright and Abel Escribà-Folch, Conversation
Technology makes it more feasible to prosecute war crimes in Ukraine than in any other previous war
“More than any conflict before, the war in Ukraine is on the record. Around 70% of the country has internet access, which means almost anyone with a smartphone can watch. And prosecutors are. … The number of people investigating, combined with near-limitless open-source information — from videos of Russian strikes to satellite images of troop movements — makes it more likely that specific charges are filed, a rarity in these investigations.” — Noah Robertson, Christian Science Monitor
War crimes prosecutions would send a critical message to the world
“What matters is that the war crimes in Ukraine are investigated and, no matter the difficulty in prosecuting them, at least a diligent, determined effort is made to render justice so the world can see that Mr. Putin’s brand of war can’t be tolerated.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal
The world should focus on gathering evidence right now and leave the debate over war crimes for later
“The choice of legal forum is tomorrow’s problem. Today’s is making certain that evidence of those crimes is collected, documented, and preserved so that the world will never forget the horrors being perpetrated against the people of Ukraine as part of Putin’s war of choice.” — Editorial, Boston Globe
Fear of prosecution may prove convincing to Russian soldiers on the ground
“While these steps are unlikely to alter Putin’s current course, if Russian soldiers and lower-level leaders see that there is a unified and determined effort to ensure they will be held accountable for atrocities committed against the Ukrainian people, they may change their calculus in carrying out Putin’s orders.” — Carolyn Kenney, Center for American Progress
It’s important for international leaders to leave no doubt about the illegitimacy of Putin’s war
“In our lifetimes, the importance of war crimes accusations to those who got concerned about American detainee abuse, and especially torture, was not just to see if they could bring an end to the practice, and not just to pave the way for accountability for Americans involved in the practice, but also to make the war seem less legitimate. And so I would say that’s probably the central goal of those who are making this claim.” — Samuel Moyn, international law expert, to MSNBC
The threat of prosecution could be a potent tool in negotiations to end the war
“The specter of war-crimes charges could well prove useful as leverage for Ukraine in negotiations over ending the war. For example, the government in Kyiv could agree to accept limits on the scope of the investigation in return for concessions from Moscow. Contemplating a long stay at The Hague, the members of Putin’s inner circle may find such a deal newly appealing.” — Editorial, Bloomberg
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