US President Biden calls Bucha atrocities a “war crime”

The shocking atrocities in Ukraine, allegedly at the hands of Russian forces, have amplified calls to bring 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 “crimes of war” Russians. The Russian bombing of hospitals and a theater where children were seeking refuge along with the suspected 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 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 about 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 collecting evidence from testimony, satellite imagery, and other places to meet 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 to 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 Ukraine for that matter.

Who can be tried by the court?

The court judges people, not countries, and focuses on those who bear the greatest responsibility: leaders and officials. Although Ukraine is not a member of the court, it previously accepted its jurisdiction. Therefore, in theory, Putin could be indicted by the court for previously ordering war crimes in Crimea.

However, the ICC does not conduct trials in absentia, so he would have to be surrendered by Russia or arrested outside of Russia. That seems unlikely.

How does the ICC initiate the procedure?

Judicial proceedings can be initiated in two ways: 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 the council’s actions. It was requests from 39 national governments, most of them European, that prompted this current investigation.

How long do these investigations take?

If justice in general moves slowly, international justice barely moves. Investigations at the ICC have been going on for many years. They have only earned a handful of convictions.

How would an ICC case affect the conflict?

“For better or 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 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 may come to realize that this is another reason why Putin can no longer serve his country.”

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