The Big Talk: War crimes and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

War crimes and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
Russia-Ukraine war/ courtesy

President Joe Biden of the United States has called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” for his role in the Ukraine conflict, prompting a stern response from the Kremlin, which called the remarks “unacceptable and unforgivable.”

Following Biden’s use of the term on Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki stated that the president was “speaking from his heart” after witnessing “barbaric” violence in Ukraine. The White House had been debating whether or not to apply the designation to Putin, claiming that it would necessitate an investigation and an international decision.

We examine the meaning of the accusation and its application in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

What is the definition of a war criminal?

The term refers to anyone who breaks the law of armed conflict, which is a set of rules adopted by world leaders. In times of war, the rules governing how countries behave.

Those rules, derived from the Geneva Conventions in the aftermath of World War II and protocols added later, have been modified and expanded over the last century.

The rules are intended to protect those who are not fighting or who are unable to fight, such as civilians such as doctors and nurses, wounded troops, and prisoners of war.

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What actions qualify a person as a war criminal?

When an enemy is subjected to unnecessary injury or suffering, it is considered a war crime. This includes wilful killing, as well as widespread property destruction and appropriation not justified by military necessity.

Other war crimes include the deliberate targeting of civilians, the use of disproportionate force, the use of human shields, and the kidnapping of civilians.

Crimes against humanity are also prosecuted by the International Criminal Court when they are committed in the context of “a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population.” Murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture, rape, and sexual slavery are among them.

Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s defense minister, has told European Union leaders that Putin should be recognized as a war criminal.

He gave examples such as a Russian air raid on a theater on Wednesday, where he claimed 1,200 women and children were hiding. Russia has denied any involvement in the attack.

Is it possible that Putin will be put on trial?

It’s not entirely clear. Russia rejects the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction and will not send any suspects to the court’s headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands.

The United States also does not recognize the court’s authority. Putin could be tried in a country selected by the United Nations or a group of concerned countries. However, getting him there would be a challenge.

The most likely way for Putin to be implicated as a suspected war criminal is through the well-known legal doctrine of command responsibility. Commanders can be held legally liable if they issue orders, know or should know about crimes, and do nothing to prevent them.

Has anyone ever been prosecuted for being a leader?

Yes. Senior leaders have been prosecuted for their actions in countries such as Bosnia, Cambodia, and Rwanda, from post-World War II tribunals in Nuremberg and Tokyo to more recent ad hoc tribunals.

A UN tribunal in The Hague has put former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic on trial for fomenting bloody conflicts as Yugoslavia fell apart in the early 1990s. Before the court could reach a decision, he died in his cell.

Radovan Karadzic, a Bosnian Serb ally, and General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military leader, were both successfully prosecuted and are now serving life sentences.

Charles Taylor of Liberia was sentenced to 50 years in prison after being found guilty of sponsoring atrocities in Sierra Leone. Hissene Habre, the former ruler of Chad, was the first African leader to be found guilty of crimes against humanity.

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