According to Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova, 15,000 alleged war crimes have been reported since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine three months ago. Hundreds more are being reported every day.
The numbers reflect the toll of Russia’s invasion. In response, Kyiv, its allies and the International Criminal Court (ICC) have launched investigations into possible atrocities committed in Ukraine. All, however, are mum on whether they are investigating alleged war crimes committed by Ukrainian forces. It is in Kyiv’s interest to ensure that all alleged atrocities committed are thoroughly investigated and prosecuted, including any that its own soldiers may have perpetrated.
The decision of Western states and the ICC to investigate Russia’s crimes represents a sliver of humanity in the face of Moscow’s unspeakable cruelty and capacity for atrocity. To a far lesser extent than allegations levied against Moscow, there have been reports of war crimes committed by Ukrainian forces as they seek to repel Russia’s invasion and occupation of Ukrainian territory. Human Rights Watch, for example, offered evidence of Russian prisoners of war being beaten and shot by Ukrainian forces. Prior to Russia’s invasion, the ICC prosecutor also determined that Ukrainian government forces had committed crimes against detained Russian and Russian-backed soldiers, albeit less severely than those committed by their counterparts.
Even in the most asymmetrical conflicts, it is never the case that only one side commits atrocities. The nature of war breeds excesses, ones felt most directly and brutally by civilians. Yet states and international organisations have a hard time investigating and prosecuting those parties they believe are on the “good” side of war, especially in the case of ongoing conflicts.
The ICC, for example, has the propensity of only investigating and prosecuting one party to a conflict. Historically, the court’s prosecutor has chosen a party – most often the winning side or one which Western powers support – and investigated its enemies.
In Ukraine, ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan has been eager to demonstrate his solidarity with Ukraine, travelling to the country and appearing with government officials, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, while noting that Russia has declined to cooperate with the ICC. He has also illustrated his keen interest in working with Western powers that are investigating Russian atrocities and who have earmarked funds to investigate Moscow’s alleged crimes. It is with these powerful states that momentum on justice resides.
The ICC prosecutor’s very public siding with Ukraine and Western powers has some supporters of the court anxious. For example, Céline Bardet of We Are Not Weapons of War has articulated that “[t]he war in Ukraine … carries the risk that the ICC could pay a high price, in the medium or long term, for not clearly establishing safeguards against being seen as a tool of one side.”
Few believe that the ICC will bring forward allegations against Ukrainian soldiers or authorities, even if doing so is found to be warranted. Just weeks into the war, the court announced arrest warrants for another situation: the 2008 war in Georgia. Despite allegations of atrocities committed on all sides of that conflict, each ICC warrant was for a Russian-backed official from South Ossetia.
Other developments are likely to entrench the notion that Russian forces not only are responsible for most atrocities in Ukraine, but all atrocities committed in the country.
Excerpted: ‘It’s in Ukraine’s interest to prosecute its own alleged crimes’.ark Kersten, "War crimes," The News. 2022-06-11.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Criminal court , Ukrainian conflict , Crimes , Weapons , Prisoners , President Zelenskyy , Gen Iryna Venediktova , Russia , ICC