Russia Has Killed Hundreds of Civilians. But Has It Committed War Crimes?
United Nations members voted overwhelmingly Wednesday afternoon to condemn Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and to express “grave concern” about ongoing Russian attacks on civilian facilities, which have intensified in the past week. Amnesty International reports that Russian forces have targeted a hospital in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine and an administrative building at Kharkiv. They also attacked a school in northern Ukraine.
“We stand together in holding Russia accountable for its violations of international law,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said Wednesday. The United Nations Human Rights Office for the High Commissioner reports that at least 536 civilians including 13 children have been murdered since February 24, although experts warn this number could be higher.
The U.N. formal condemnation comes on the heels of a volley of claims in the last week that Russia is committing war crimes in pursuing its “special military operation” in Ukraine. In a video, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky called Russian attacks on Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine, “a war crime” and 39 countries encouraged the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate. On Monday, the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor’s office announced that it was launching an investigation into whether Russian forces are committing “war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
Whether Russia’s military actions in Ukraine technically qualify as “war crimes” under the international rules of war is now an open question. There is no way to fix it. International institutions, including the U.N., the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court have ways that they can punish and isolate Vladimir Putin’s regime, but the extent to which they use those levers depends on the unity and support of powerful member states.
The misinformation and confusion of the battleground make it difficult to see the truth. Russia invaded Ukraine and violated international law. John Bellinger is an adjunct senior fellow on international and national security law for the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), which is a nonpartisan think-tank. U.N. members states are prohibited by modern war laws from using force to stop the invasion of Ukraine. “territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”
“What we don’t know yet, but the world will be watching closely, is whether, having invaded Ukraine, will Russian military forces be committing war crimes?” he adds. “Or have they already committed war crimes in Ukraine?”
Are there any rules to war?
Experts say that the rules of war (also known as international humanitarian or law of armed conflicts) are derived largely from international agreements such the Geneva Conventions and UN Charter. They are intended to minimize unnecessary cruelty in warfare and were established in some way by the Geneva Convention of 1864. This convention stipulated that any wounded soldier, no matter their nationality, must receive medical attention.
As technology advances, the rules of conduct have evolved over time. For example, 1949 amendments to Geneva Convention make it clear that civilians are not to be used as a weapon of war, and that prisoners must be given adequate care.
The modern rules of war focus on the protection of “civilian objects,” an umbrella term that includes schools, hospitals, homes, and places of worship or places non-combatants are attempting to conduct their daily lives. Unless intelligence indicates that the “civilian object” is being used for military purposes, it is considered a war crime to target it, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international human rights advocacy organization. In other words: It is essential to show intent.
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Bellinger states that Russia could be found intentionally targeting civilian areas in violation of its military purposes. If instead it is killing civilians as collateral damage in its military operation, then it’s not clear that counts.
Several humanitarian organizations including Amnesty International’s Crisis Evidence Lab and and HRW are documenting cases in which Russian attacks kill or injure Ukrainian civilians, in instances that may constitute war crimes. “We’re very, very concerned that Russia is, sadly, continuing on with its shameful track record on targeting, deliberately or not, innocent civilians who should never be targeted under the laws of war,” Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s regional director of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, tells TIME.
The ICC is an international court system which allows people to file charges against foreign countries. It announced Monday it was going to investigate the situation. Established in 1998 after 60 countries—not including the U.S.—ratified a treaty known as the Rome Treaty, the ICC has jurisdiction to bring charges against individuals for acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the “crime of aggression”—which includes “the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, integrity or independence of another State,” according the court’s description. The ICC was established in 2002 and has already tried thirty cases.
The ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor is imbued with the power to investigate potential crimes, though both the investigations and the resulting prosecutions can take years. There are many other ways to get involved.fter Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine accepted the ICC’s jurisdiction over alleged crimes occurring on its territory. Russia continues to face cases arising from the military incursion.
According to a statement made by the ICJ, Ukraine brought additional charges against Russia before an international court. The International Court of Justice, which is the judicial organ of the United Nations (ICJ), alleges that Russia falsely claimed that Ukraine had committed genocide against Russians in order to justify its invasion. There is no evidence that Russia’s allegations are true, Bellinger says. “Putin is using the language of international law—terms like ‘genocide’ and ‘self-defense,’ to throw up a smokescreen to cloak his actions in the language of international law,” he says.
Can Russia be held responsible even if it commits war crimes?
If Russia is found to have committed war crimes, what comes next isn’t clear, experts say. The ICC observes that Russia is currently being investigated for war crimes committed in Ukraine. Russia is not a party to the treaty which created the court. This means that Russians could claim that the court does not have legal jurisdiction over them. “If there is an indictment against any Russian officials, it is very unlikely that they would ever be arrested and taken to the Hague,” Bellinger says.
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Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s spokesperson says that international institutions may not have had the same influence as they would like. “On Russia, traditionally these international mechanisms have been rather weak,” she says. There may also beThis time, there is every reason to be optimistic. The scale of Russia’s invasion this time around has been far more intense than in 2014, and so has the international response. “Both of which lead me to say, not with 100% certainty, but that maybe we will come out of this particular horrible conflict with some mechanism that’s more robust in terms of holding the Russian military and perhaps even the President accountable,” she says.
Bellinger is also hopeful that the scale of Russia’s attack will force the international bodies to act. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine poses perhaps the most serious challenge to the UN Charter in 75 years, and it will put both international law and international institutions under pressure,” he says. “We’ll have to see whether international institutions like the UN, the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, and the General Assembly can rise to this challenge.”
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The U.N. vote Wednesday to condemn Russia’s war in Ukraine was an almost entirely symbolic gesture, but in coming days and weeks, the General Assembly could take more forceful steps, including urging that Russia be ejected from certain U.N. bodies and committees, calling for further investigations, or encouraging further sanctions against Russia, providing leeway for countries that have so far hesitated to join the sanctions. The UN Human Rights Council currently considers opening an investigation into the human rights violations occurring in Ukraine.
“The General Assembly is somewhat limited on the actions that it can take,” Bellinger says. “But it can still isolate Russia, and urge all the rest of the countries in the world and international organizations to take actions to further condemn and isolate Russia. It’s not quite the same as a law, like our Senate passing a law, but it still can be very consequential.”