At least 23 people, including three children, were killed in a Russian rocket attack on a city in central Ukraine on Thursday. Two weeks earlier, rockets crashed into buildings near Odessa, killing 21. And for weeks in the Kiev suburb of Bucha, civilians suffered most from the Russian attack – killed on their bicycles or walking down the street, or executed with their hands tied.
Random Russian attacks on civilian areas have become a feature of its invasion, and this week an international conference in The Hague sought to coordinate a response to the overwhelming allegations of war crimes in Ukraine.
But investigators face a huge challenge, with as many as 20,000 war crimes investigations, multiple countries and international agencies at work, and a heavy burden of proof to reach a conviction. To complicate matters further, the investigations are working while the war is still raging. The Kremlin has denied charges against its troops and the Russian Defense Ministry has called graphic evidence of atrocities “fake.”
Prosecutors want to prevent national and international prosecutors from tripping over each other in their search for evidence and witnesses. On Thursday, International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan stressed the need to coordinate investigations and avoid a “rush” of many parties “running to the crime scene”.
This week in The Hague, representatives from 45 countries, including the United States and countries of the European Union, heard testimony about atrocities and pledged about $20 million to assist the ICC, the Attorney General of Ukraine and the United Nations’ efforts. stand.
Experts say the International Criminal Court, which was established in 1998 to handle cases of mass atrocities, could be an important means of holding Russia accountable, although there are many obstacles to that goal. Neither Russia nor Ukraine is among the court’s 123 member states, but Ukraine has granted the court jurisdiction over crimes committed on its territory.
The Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wopke Hoekstra, said at a press conference on Thursday that the Netherlands is considering setting up an ad hoc international tribunal for war crimes in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the conference via video as rescuers dug through the rubble from Thursday’s rocket attack on Vinnytsia, a town far from fighting on the Eastern Front. “This is the act of Russian terror,” he said.
On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said that Russian authorities…between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens, including 260,000 children, have been “evicted” from their homes into Russian territory, often to isolated regions in the Far East. The wrongful transfer of protected persons, he said, was a violation of a Geneva Convention and a war crime.
Russia has acknowledged that there are now 1.5 million Ukrainians in Russia, but has stated that they have been evacuated for their own safety.
The history of war crimes suggests that it would be difficult for prosecutors to raise cases about Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Three of the most prominent prosecutions – against Slobodan Milosevic, Charles Taylor and Saddam Hussein – were launched against leaders who had run out of power; no sitting president has ever been handed over to an international court.
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has strong domestic support and has developed strong ties with the leaders of other major countries, including those of China, Turkey and Iran.
Proving war crimes, and especially proving who ordered a certain action, is also very difficult. In Mr Putin’s case, prosecutors would have to demonstrate that he issued specific orders that led to specific atrocities, that he was aware of the crimes or that he did nothing to prevent them.
Prosecutors would also have to show that Russian commanders had deliberately attacked civilian structures, or attacked them in attacks that did not distinguish between civilian and military targets. Obtaining such evidence or testimony may be impossible for the foreseeable future, at least as long as the fighting continues.
Marlise Simons contributed reporting from Paris.