From the massacres in former Yugoslavia and the genocide in Rwanda to Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine, the international community had to take action in order to bring criminals to justice. In the case of Yugoslavia and Rwanda, international courts of law were set up. In the case of Russia, a nuclear power with veto rights in the UN Security Council, identifying and prosecuting the people who committed atrocities such as the massacre in Bucha, might be more complicated, although there are solutions in this case as well.
Carla del Ponte: Putin is a war criminal
Seeing the cemetery at Srebrenica for the first time left a lump in my throat, although many years had passed since the war in the Balkans. Then, as I reached the morgue in Banja Luka, the place where the bodies of thousands of people were identified in mass graves or collected from the streets of Bosnia, I felt I couldn’t breathe. To me, this was the first DIRECT and unmitigated contact with THE EVIL some men are capable of inflicting on their fellow human beings. As a journalist, I had written about the war in the Balkans as well as about the genocide in Rwanda, but never before had I seen so many skeletons awaiting DNA analysis in order to be identified. 20 years on, here I am again witnessing a string of incomprehensible atrocities. Bucha, Borodianka, Kramatorsk are just the tip of the iceberg, just as president Zelensky said. We don’t yet know the full scale of the havoc Russia is wreaking in Mariupol, but we can guess. I fear the port-city will be Ukraine’s Srebrenica.
This is how the UN defines war crimes: “violations of international humanitarian law (treaty or customary law) that incur individual criminal responsibility under international law. As a result, and in contrast to the crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity, war crimes must always take place in the context of an armed conflict, either international or non-international.”
Putin is a war criminal, and the International Criminal Court (ICC) must issue an arrest warrant in his name as soon as possible, former International Criminal Tribunal judge Carla del Ponte says. Del Ponte is famous for the investigations she instrumented as part of the international tribunals for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.
Let’s assume the ICC will issue the warrants. Can Putin actually be arrested? It’s a long-shot, at best. Even so, as the Swiss prosecutor told Le Temps, the warrant itself is an important signal the investigative work has been done.
It’s an extremely important step for all the inquiries that were launched both by the ICC and by Ukraine’s Prosecutor Office, with consequences extending far beyond their remit.
Why criminal charges were brought against the war crimes in former Yugoslavia and the genocide in Rwanda, whereas Russia’s involvement in the massacre of Syrian civilians remains unpunished
In the 1990s, during the war in the Balkans, which led to the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, the war crimes committed on the territory of the former Federation shocked the whole world. It’s hard to forget the massacre in Srebrenica, when 8,000 Muslim civilians, men and boys, were slaughtered in cold blood and dumped in mass graves! This was the first time since World War II when Europe faced such atrocities.
The International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) investigated all the war crimes committed in the Yugoslav Wars and their authors were eventually indicted and put on trial, even though the investigations – and the ensuing trials – took years. The ICTY started its activity in 1993 and completed its mandate in 2017. It did not just bring to justice the perpetrators of all the atrocities committed in the Balkans, but it also helped shape human rights law for years to come. The stories of those who survived the horrors became important testimonies. The ICTY proved that those suspected of having committed atrocities during armed conflicts can be brought to justice.
Another key contribution to the development of war crimes legal proceedings was the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), set up a year after the genocide in this African state. For the first time in history, an international court of law was handing out genocide sentences. The ICTR was also the first global institution to legally recognize rape falling within the broader category of genocide.
Still, Vladimir Putin’s fate could have been decided when the UN set up a Commission of Inquiry to look into allegations of human rights violations and war crimes in Syria since the start of the conflict in this country in 2011. Dozens of reports were made public, including one that proves Russia committed war crimes in Syria by targeting attacks on the civilian population in an attempt to support Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Russia’s veto in the Security Council and the lack of concerted political will blocked all investigations on Syria, says Carla del Ponte, who sat on the Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, but resigned in 2018.
Solutions for Ukraine: domestic inquiries and a special International Tribunal
Human rights experts across the world agree that creating a special Tribunal to investigate the atrocities in Ukraine would be a useful endeavor, if not absolutely necessary.
Mykola Gnatovsky is a member of the International Law Association in Ukraine. In an interview to the Romanian public TV broadcaster, the international law expert said that “a special tribunal would be complementary to the International Criminal Court, which, right now, cannot investigate these crimes.” The reason is that the current international framework stipulates a resolution of the UN Security Council is required for that, which Russia would automatically veto.
What should be done then? On the one hand, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Office is conducting its own lines of inquiry and prosecution. International law actually requires the start of such proceedings at national level. Nearly six thousand investigations into Russian war crimes have already been launched, and the prosecutor’s office is trying to identify the culprits.
On the other hand, a special Tribunal will also be able to indict high-ranking officials of the Russian Federation for acts of aggression, which unlike war crimes, is a direct offense, in which case invoking immunity or substituting liability would be out of the question.
As we’ve seen in the case of former Yugoslavia, inquiries and legal proceedings can take years to finalize. And even if it does come to passing sentences, their enforcement is a completely different story. It’s unlikely Putin’s Russia would willingly turn in any criminal or imprison him on its own territory. But this would only deepen Russia’s increased isolation and consolidate its status as an international pariah. And everyone found guilty of war crimes will no longer be able to move around freely in civilized parts of the world, and even at home they will have to look over their shoulders twice as often as they do now.