Justice for Ukraine: The Hague calls for Russian war crimes probe

Following near constant reports of human rights violations against Ukrainians by Russian military, world leaders want action. Chief coordinator of the ICC calls for a unified global investigation into Russia’s alleged war crimes in Ukraine.

Alexei Alexandrov/AP/File
The Mariupol theater stands ghostly following the outbreak of war in the Donetsk People's Republic, April 4, 2022. Months later, dozens of countries meet with the International Criminal Court in The Hague to coordinate their probes into alleged Russian war crimes.

The International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor called Thursday for an “overarching strategy” to bring perpetrators of war crimes in Ukraine to justice, and representatives from dozens of countries pledged to cooperate in their investigations.

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, his military forces have been accused of abuses ranging from killings in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha to deadly attacks on civilian facilities, including the March 16 bombing of a theater in Mariupol that an Associated Press investigation established likely killed close to 600 people.

“The simple truth is that, as we speak, children, women and men, the young and the old, are living in terror,” ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan said as he opened the Ukraine Accountability Conference in The Hague.

Mr. Khan said Thursday’s ministerial meeting addressed “a need of coordination, of coherence” and “the need of an overarching strategy” as different nations and courts work to investigate and prosecute crimes.

The AP and Frontline, which are tracking incidents in Ukraine, have so far tallied 338 potential war crimes.

As the meeting got underway in The Hague, Russian missiles struck the central Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia in what Ukraine’s president called “an open act of terrorism” on the country’s civilian population.

Speaking to reporters after the conference, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, held up a photograph that appeared to show a child’s body as she discussed Thursday’s airstrike.

“Today, 20 people killed by Russian missiles, including three children, 52 injured by Russian missiles, including children. And this information we have every day from morning to night, night to morning,” she said.

U.S. State Department human rights envoy Uzra Zeya accused Russian forces of atrocities as she delivered a message to the conference from Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

“With each day, the war crimes mount. Rape, torture, extrajudicial executions, disappearances, forced deportations. Attacks on schools, hospitals, playgrounds, apartment buildings, grain silos, water and gas facilities,” Ms. Zeya said. “These are not the acts of rogue units – they fit a clear pattern across every part of Ukraine touched by Russia’s forces.”

About 40 nations from the European Union and around the world sent representatives to The Hague for the conference hosted by Mr. Khan, Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Wopke Hoekstra, and the European Union’s justice commissioner, Didier Reynders.

Investigations of military crimes committed during the nearly 5-month war in Ukraine are underway around Europe; more than 23,000 war crimes cases have been registered in Ukraine alone, Ms. Venediktova said. The ICC and 14 EU member nations also have launched investigations.

“Words are cheap. Too much has been promised for too long. And I think today, from many vantage points, represents a realization that we, as lawyers and investigators, need to take the law off the page and put it into action,” ICC prosecutor Mr. Khan said as the meeting wrapped up.

Delegates agreed to set up a dialogue group to link and streamline the various investigations.

“We need to translate our shared and strong conviction for justice into a unified answer against impunity and use the results of this conference as a blueprint to respond to cruelties and crimes committed in Ukraine and in the rest of the world,” Mr. Hoekstra said.

In a video message to the meeting, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called for the creation of an international tribunal to prosecute Russian leaders for the crime of aggression – when one state launches an unjustified attack on another.

The ICC doesn’t have jurisdiction to prosecute the crime of aggression in Ukraine because neither Russia nor Ukraine is among the court’s 123 member states.

Kyiv has, however, accepted the court’s jurisdiction and that cleared the way for Khan to open an investigation in Ukraine in early March after dozens of the global court’s member nations asked him to intervene. He has visited Ukraine to see firsthand the horrors inflicted on the country and sent the court’s largest-ever team of investigators to gather evidence.

So far, the court hasn’t announced any arrest warrants for suspects in the probe that could reach to the very top of Russia’s military chain of command, as well as to the Kremlin.

The ICC is a court of last resort that opens cases when other countries are unwilling or unable to launch prosecutions. The Hague-based court has no police force to make arrests and relies on assistance from other countries to detain suspects.

The EU’s judicial cooperation agency, Eurojust, helped establish a Joint Investigation Team made up of Ukraine and five other European nations. The team is meant to help facilitate evidence sharing.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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