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 strewn across the street in Bucha, Ukraine, emerged over the weekend following the withdrawal of Russian forces 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 along with its suspected use of cluster bombs and so-called vacuum bombs in dense areas with many civilians have also been described as war crimes.
Here’s a very broad look at war crimes and the international justice movement.
What is a war crime?
The International Criminal Court has specific definitions for war crimes, which you can read in this guide published 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 gathering evidence from testimony, satellite images and elsewhere to meet a burden of proof.
What is the International Criminal Court?
Located in The Hague, 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 parties to the treaty, but there are very large and notable exceptions, including Russia and the US. And, for that matter, Ukraine.
Who can be tried by the court?
The court tries people, not countries, and focuses on those who hold the most responsibility: leaders and officials. While Ukraine is not a member of the court, it has previously accepted its jurisdiction. Putin could, therefore, theoretically be indicted by the court for previously ordering war crimes in Crimea.
However, the ICC does not conduct trials in absentia, so he would either have to be handed over by Russia or arrested outside of Russia. That seems unlikely.
How does the ICC bring proceedings?
Court proceedings can be brought in one of 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 veto power over council actions. It was requests by 39 national governments, most of them European, that sparked this current investigation.
How long do these investigations take?
If justice in general moves slowly, international justice barely moves at all. Investigations at the ICC take many years. Only a handful of convictions have ever 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-in-chief of Just Security, an online forum.
He argued 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. “Russians may come to realize this is another reason Putin can no longer serve their country.”