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Ukraine’s crimes

While nowhere near the scale of the Russian atrocities, there is mounting evidence that Ukrainian forces have committed war crimes over the course of the Ukraine-Russia war. The allegations, and the evidence supporting them, will not go away. What matters now is how Ukraine responds to them. Its allies also have a role to play in shaping that response. Unlike Moscow, Kyiv is capable of addressing atrocities committed by its forces in its own courts.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, allegations that Ukrainian forces have committed war crimes against Russian officers and prisoners of war (POWs) have grown. A controversial Amnesty International report asserted that Ukrainian military tactics put civilians in danger. Video footage has since been published suggesting that Ukrainian troops may have executed surrendering Russian officers in the town of Makiivka. Back in 2019, the International Criminal Court (ICC) determined that Ukrainian forces committed possible war crimes against Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine

To be clear: none of these allegations draws moral or legal equivalency between the acts of Ukrainian and Russian forces. Any alleged crimes committed by Ukrainian officers pale in comparison to the aggression and barbarity Russian forces have demonstrated in Ukraine. But all atrocities must be accounted for, not just those of one’s enemies.

In response to the videos showing potential war crimes committed by Ukrainian forces, Ukraine announced that it would investigate. However, authorities have said they will open an investigation specifically into the war crime of “perfidy”, implying that Russian soldiers seen in these videos were killed only after they deceived Ukrainian forces by pretending to surrender.

The announcement of an investigation is a good first step. But Ukraine must avoid drawing conclusions before any investigation has taken place. It is important to avoid tunnel vision and allow an impartial investigation to speak for itself. As former Human Rights Watch Director Kenneth Roth notes: “An investigation is needed … One Russian fired on his Ukrainian captors – possible perfidy – but that doesn’t justify executing other soldiers if they posed no immediate threat.”

With respect to alleged crimes committed by Ukrainian forces, Kyiv’s allies have a role to play. Rather than condemning Ukraine, they should encourage it to take responsibility and launch independent investigations. This encouragement can take multiple forms. First and foremost, Kyiv’s international partners should clearly and unequivocally state that international criminal law and international humanitarian law apply to all parties of a conflict, not just some. This holds true even in severely asymmetrical wars like that in Ukraine.

Not all states have done this. The United Kingdom, France, and Canada, among others, have been conspicuously silent on the subject. They might, however, consider the example of US War Crimes Ambassador-at-Large Beth Van Schaack, a staunch supporter of accountability efforts in Ukraine. Van Schaack recently stated that “the laws of war apply to all parties equally: both the aggressor state and the defender state and this is in equal measure … All parties to the conflict must abide by international law or face the consequences.”

Mark Kersten, "Ukraine’s crimes," The News. 2022-12-19.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Amnesty International , Criminal law , Humanitarian , Crimes , Kenneth Roth , Beth Van Schaack , Russia , Ukraine , ICC , POWs