US says Russia committed war crimes, but consequences are unclear

WASHINGTON – A day after President Biden branded President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia as “”war criminalRegarding the deaths of civilians in Ukraine, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Thursday repeated his assessment and said that Mr. Putin would be held accountable.

“Yesterday, President Biden said that, in his view, war crimes were committed in Ukraine. Personally, I agree,” Blinken said, citing a list of horrific Russian attacks that have killed unarmed Ukrainians, including children. “Deliberately targeting civilians is a war crime.”

The practical obstacles to Putin’s punishment are enormous, experts say, although his field commanders in Ukraine may be more vulnerable. Complicating matters is the United States’ unofficial recognition of the International Criminal Court, which is the main forum for prosecuting war crimes.

Some experts say declaring the Russian leader a war criminal could make it harder to negotiate a peace deal with him, but it could also give Ukraine and the West a leverage if Mr. Putin tries to haggle for immunity from any prosecution.

Biden and Blinken’s back-and-forth comments mark a clear shift in US language on the subject after weeks of US officials saying they were not going to make it public even as hospitals and apartment complexes. Ukraine fell to rubble.

Two weeks ago, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, told reporters that the United States had “not reached a conclusion” on whether war crimes were committed in Ukraine, saying the question was the subject of a formal legal review.

There is growing evidence of horrific Russian attacks on civilian targets – including bombing on Wednesday at a Mariupol . theater may have sheltered hundreds of people who were evicted from their homes – making that position difficult to maintain.

Legal experts said U.S. officials must be mindful of the seemingly indifferent to the complex legal issues that could come to trial, and Biden and Blinken both focused their assessments on Personally, stop talking about US government policy.

“I think he’s a war criminal,” Biden said in response to a reporter’s question on Wednesday.

A Senate resolution passed unanimously on Tuesday condemned Mr. Putin for “alleged war crimes” in Ukraine.

“The reason for all their caution is that with respect to any crime, There is a standard of proof that must be met. “If you’re having a challenge, you can’t just say, Yeah, we all assume he knows what’s going on.”

Ms Hathaway said prosecutors would have to show that Russian commanders intentionally targeted civilian structures or attacked them in attacks that did not distinguish between civilian and military targets. In Mr. Putin’s case, prosecutors will have to prove that he issued specific orders tied to those actions.

Arresting and trying anyone proven guilty, not least the sitting president of a nuclear weapons state, is another matter. Representative Tom Malinowski, Democrat of New Jersey and former top State Department official on human rights, said: “There is no gubernatorial service that goes along with the International Criminal Court.

But Mr. Malinowski and others say war crimes investigations can have a powerful deterrent effect. While Russian officials may hope that sanctions against them will one day be lifted, an indictment of war crimes brings permanent stigma and the risk of arrest. .

With Russia’s military campaign bogged down and Ukraine claiming to have killed several Russian generals, Putin’s field commanders may have reason to fear being arrested and ultimately tried for murder. series. Frontline troops may also be demoralized by official investigations.

“The hope is that it creates a disincentive for those most exposed, who are also the people closest to the fighting,” Ms. Hathaway said.

And it is very likely that Mr. Putin will be deposed and possibly fall into foreign hands somehow. Former Serbian nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic, accused of war crimes during the breakup of Yugoslavia, was arrested by Serbian authorities after he was removed from office in 2001 and handed over to The Hague for prosecution. element. (He died during his 2006 trial.)

The concept of international justice for war crimes was established during the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders after World War II. Today, it is based on the Geneva Conventions, a series of treaties governing the treatment in wartime of civilians, prisoners of war and others, ratified by every nation.

Although many agencies and countries are investigating possible war crimes in Ukraine, experts say the International Criminal Court offers the best chance for accountability. Based in The Hague, the court was established in 1998 after separate courts prosecuted mass atrocities in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, highlighting the need for a regular judicial body. to handle such cases.

Last month, the top prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, announced that he was opening an investigation into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This week, Mr Khan traveled to Poland and Ukraine to begin gathering evidence and meet face-to-face with President Volodymyr Zelensky.

In an interview with CNN from Ukraine, Mr. Khan said he would investigate whether there were cases of Ukrainian forces attacking from populated areas that could make them a legitimate target. But even then, the use of cluster bombs or the use of disproportionate attacks in densely populated areas is unlicensed.

The United States already has a close relationship with the court and is not among its 123 member states. President George W. Bush revoked President Bill Clinton’s signature on the incorporation document, saying he would not accept the court’s jurisdiction over US troops abroad. President Barack Obama cooperated with the court but never sought to include the United States as a member.

The administration of President Donald J. Trump has a clear hostility towards what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo derided as a “kangaroo court” and is biased towards Israel. Mr. Trump even imposed sanctions on the top prosecutor and others after she began an investigation into US military war crimes in Afghanistan.

Todd Buchwald, head of the US State Department’s Global Criminal Justice Office, said: “Traditionally, the US has opposed the ICC’s confirmation of jurisdiction over US citizens because the US has never accepted it. jurisdiction of the court. “The question is, how do we think about this now?”

Other agencies could prosecute alleged Russian war crimes. The United Nations or allied nations can set up special courts, and individual states can also assert what is called general authority, a legal concept that allows a country’s courts to try people for human rights crimes. In January, a German court of this principle convicted a former Syrian government security official with torture charges.

But the Syrians, Anwar Raslanhad immigrated to Germany, where he probably did not expect to be identified and arrested.

Russian officials are unlikely to make themselves so vulnerable to arrest.

“A really big problem is getting people on the docks,” said Matthew Waxman, a law professor at Columbia University who served in senior national security roles during the Bush administration.

“I very much doubt that Putin will ever find himself in The Hague,” he added.

Edward Wong contribution report.

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