What constitutes a war crime? | European | News and current affairs from across the continent | DW

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, its troops have increasingly hit civilian sites with airstrikes and artillery, raising fears of war crimes.

Amnesty International said the Russian army was carrying out “indiscriminate attacks” in Ukraine.

And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has branded Russian missile strikes in civilian areas a war crime, most recently on Tuesday when the Russian military launched airstrikes on Freedom Square in Kharkiv.

On Wednesday, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague announced that it would open an investigation into possible war crimes or crimes against humanity in Ukraine. In a statement, prosecutor Karim AA Khan QC wrote that there was a “reasonable basis” to open an investigation and that the collection of evidence has now begun.

“Laws of War”

There are specific international standards for war crimes, which should not be confused with crimes against humanity.

War crimes are defined as serious violations of humanitarian law during a conflict. The definition, established by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), is derived from the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and is based on the idea that individuals can be held responsible for the actions of a state or its military.

The United Nations Office for the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect distinguishes war crimes from genocide and crimes against humanity. War crimes are defined as occurring in an internal conflict or war between two states, while genocide and crimes against humanity can occur in times of peace or during the unilateral aggression of an army against a group of unarmed people.

Ukrainian officials say more than 2,000 civilians were killed in Russian attacks

There is a long list of acts that can be considered war crimes. The taking of hostages, willful killings, torture or inhuman treatment of prisoners of war and forcing children to fight are some of the most obvious examples.

But, in practice, there are a lot of gray areas in this list.

“The laws of war don’t always protect civilians from death,” Dr. Mark Kersten of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy told DW. “Not all civilian deaths are necessarily illegal.”

Raiding towns or villages, bombing residential buildings or schools, and even killing groups of civilians do not necessarily constitute war crimes – not if their military necessity is justified. The same act can become a war crime if it results in unnecessary destruction, suffering and loss that exceeds the military gain of the attack.

Distinction, proportionality, precaution

To decide whether an individual or a soldier has committed a war crime, international humanitarian law lays down three principles: distinction, proportionality and precaution.

Proportionality prohibits armies from responding to an attack with excessive violence. “If a soldier is killed, for example, you can’t bomb an entire city in retaliation,” Kersten said.

It is also illegal to target targets that are “expected to cause loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated”, according to the International Committee. of the Red Cross.

Precaution requires parties to a conflict to avoid or minimize harm to the civilian population.

Finally, “the Principle of Distinction says that you must constantly try to distinguish between civilian and belligerent populations and objects,” Kersten said, adding that it can be difficult.

“For example, attacking a barracks where there are people who have said they no longer participate in the conflict can be a war crime,” he said. “The same goes for the bombing of a military base where there are generators that supply hospitals with electricity.”

A man walks past the remains of Russian military vehicles with a lime-green bicycle

Russia has stepped up its assault in recent days

Civilian and military populations have become increasingly difficult to distinguish.

“You have saboteurs, you have plainclothes officers,” Kersten said. “Combatants dress up in wars all the time. These are very common tactics.”

Race against time

When ICC prosecutors have reason to believe a war crime has been committed, they open an investigation to find evidence that may point to specific individuals responsible for those crimes.

“These are the kinds of times we are heading towards now, in terms of war crimes in Ukraine,” Kersten said.

Time is crucial, however, as evidence can degenerate or disappear. It is very difficult for prosecutors to successfully investigate alleged war crimes after the fact, when a party to a conflict may have tampered with evidence or witnesses are no longer there.

Edited by: Kristin Zeier

Comments are closed.