Almost 400 Russian war crimes already documented in Ukraine
The International Criminal Court had begun investigating likely war crimes within just over a week of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and a Ukrainian coalition has already documented 388 such crimes.
As of 25 March, the International Criminal Court had not received any response from Moscow regarding alleged war crimes committed during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan is very careful not to pre-empt the results of the Court’s investigation, it is undoubtedly telling that 42 member states formally asked for such an investigation within days of Russia’s invasion; that an ICC team is already gathering evidence and that ICC Prosecutor Khan himself, on 16 March, visited Ukraine and the Medyka refugee reception centre in Poland, where he heard accounts from Ukrainians fleeing for their lives.
While the ICC Prosecutor did not name the perpetrators or their country, he did state unequivocally that “If attacks are intentionally directed against the civilian population: that is a crime that my Office may investigative and prosecute. If attacks are intentionally directed against civilian objects, including hospitals: that is a crime that my Office may investigate and prosecute.”
Former Head of Ukraine’s ‘War Department’ Gyunguz Mamedov reported on 25 March that the Ukrainian coalition Ukraine5am had already documented 388 war crimes committed by Russia and its armed forces in Ukraine. The coalition is currently made up of 23 organizations and 67 people documenting such crimes, with a further 22 undergoing instruction. As examples, he mentioned the shelling of civilian buildings and killing of civilians; attacks on hospitals and medical staff; as well as abductions.
Evidence needs to be fully verified, documented, etc., but there is certainly no lack of video footage, photos and witness testimony. When interviewing the ICC Prosecutor, an ITV reporter noted that everyday they visit residential blocks where people have been bombed or shelled, etc. Khan suggested that the investigators should interview the journalist, and examine their footage. The same, in fact, applies to a large number of journalists and photographers, including Evgeniy Maloletka from AP whose harrowing images from Mariupol give the lie to Russia’s denial that it is bombing and shelling civilians.
Ukraine’s Health Minister Viktor Lyashko reported on 22 March that Russia had shelled or bombed 135 Ukrainian hospitals, with 43 ambulances also coming under attack. As reported, at least one other hospital, in Kharkiv, has been hit since then, with the clinic in question also a centre for giving out humanitarian aid.
Since hospitals and all medical units must be respected and protected in all circumstances, it is likely that all of these attacks on hospitals are on the list of war crimes. The only time such protection is lost is if the facility is not being used in its humanitarian function (i.e. not as a hospital). After bombing a huge medical complex, including a maternity hospital, on 9 March, Russia essentially admitted to bombing it deliberately, while claiming that it had been taken over by Ukrainian soldiers. It has provided no evidence to back this, and there is very considerable proof, including the harrowing video and photographic footage, that the hospital was treating patents, including heavily pregnant women, when the bombs fell.
Within a couple of hours of the 16 March ruling by the UN’s International Court of Justice that Russia must immediately suspend all military action in Ukraine, Russian bombs destroyed the Mariupol Drama Theatre. This is now believed to have killed 300 civilians, although it was known that it was being used as a bomb shelter and the word ‘CHILDREN’ was marked out in big letters on both sides of the building. If the pilot could see the theatre well enough to achieve direct strikes, he must surely have seen the sign.
Russia has been abducting local public officials; journalists and civic activists in all those parts of the Kherson and Zaporizhya oblasts under their control. While investigators will need to assess accounts of torture from those released, it is certainly clear that nobody went of their own free will. In at least two cases (those of Viktor Maruniak and Dmytro Vasyliev), the men’s state of health means that their lives would be in danger even if they are not being subjected to torture.
Mamedov has indicated that there is evidence of Russia’s use of prohibited phosphorous munitions, which use white phosphorous as a fuel filler and which burn everything around, causing horrific suffering.
On 17 March, Human Rights Watch accused Russian forces of having repeatedly fired cluster munition rockets into the densely populated city of Mykolaiv during separate attacks on 7, 11 and 13 March. Evidence of use of both cluster munitions and vacuum bombs had been provided earlier by Bellingcat and in many international media reports. Amnesty International had already reported indiscriminate attacks and likely war crimes within a day of Russia’s invasion on 24 February.
All of this arsenal, it should be stressed, is being used primarily against major Ukrainian cities – Kyiv; Kharkiv; Mariupol; Mykolaiv; Chernihiv and others. In Mariupol particularly, but now also Chernihiv, Russia is also systematically destroying infrastructure, while effectively imposing a blockade on the cities, meaning that the population are left without food, water, heating and electricity, while being prevented from leaving.
There are also reports that people are being forcibly taken to Russia, occupied Donbas or Crimea. It Is debatable whether any ‘evacuation’ could be viewed as voluntary if residents are essentially left no other way of saving their lives and, probably, those of their children, but in some cases, those supposedly ‘evacuated’ appear to have only found out post fact, where they have been taken to.
It is clear from Russia’s attacks on television towers, on independent media and journalists in occupied areas that these crimes also warrant close attention.
With respect to international courts, it is not only ICC and, probably more slowly, the International Court of Justice that will be investigating likely war crimes and other violations of international law committed during Russia’s war against Ukraine. As reported, Russia’s withdrawal from the European Convention will not absolve it of liability for crimes and violations committed before 16 September 2022.
In all these cases, as well as those brought by Ukraine and, hopefully, other democratic states, a lot of proof against Russia and Russian leader Vladimir Putin will, according to Mamedov, be created by Putin’s own propaganda machine. In a recent article about holding the aggressor state to answer, Mamedov noted that Russia propaganda bears the hallmarks of calls to genocide, while Putin’s own interview was admission of violation of Article 2, paragraph 3 of the UN Statute, regarding respect for states’ sovereignty and the obligation to resolve all disagreements in a peaceful manner. There is evidence of such crimes, and specifically genocide, Mamedov adds, in the officially stated motives for Russia’s aggression, for example, the so-called “denazification of Ukraine” that Russia has claimed is its ‘aim’ in bombing Ukrainian cities and killing civilians, including well over 100 children.