A senior US diplomat this week accused Russian forces invading Ukraine of “systemic” war crimes, saying the abuses are occurring on a scale that suggests leaders at the highest levels in the Kremlin know about and support them.
Russia claimed that the allegation was not supported by evidence and that reports of Ukrainian atrocities were ignored.
During a briefing at the State Department on Monday, U.S. Goodwill Ambassador for Global Criminal Justice Beth Van Schaack said evidence of Russian war crimes collected by nongovernmental organizations, the media and investigators specializing in war crimes were numerous.
Van Schaack signaled strong U.S. support for the various efforts currently underway to document war crimes and eventually bring formal charges to the International Criminal Court or other appropriate forums.
“The aggression against Ukraine is a clear violation of the Charter of the United Nations, and we have growing evidence that this aggression has been accompanied by systemic war crimes committed in all regions where Russian forces have been deployed,” Van Schaack said. “This includes deliberate, indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks against the civilian population and elements of the civilian infrastructure. We are witnessing abuses of detention of civilians and prisoners of war as well as efforts to conceal these crimes.”
“All along the chain of command”
She said the evidence suggests that “these atrocities are not the acts of rogue units or individuals. Rather, they are part of a deeply disturbing pattern of reports of abuse in all areas where we see the Russian forces engage”.
Pointing specifically to the “filtration” camps, through which countless numbers of Ukrainian civilians, including many children, were processed and deported to Russia, she said the scale of the operation suggests direct support from the Kremlin .
“Prosecutors will follow the evidence wherever it leads, but in the face of such systemic acts, including the creation of a vast network of filtration, it is very difficult to imagine how these crimes could be committed without accountability being traced back. all along the chain of command,” she says.
Van Schaack’s Monday remarks were not the first time a senior U.S. official has accused Russia of war crimes, but experts said his comments appeared to mark a change in the administration’s attitude to the war. regard to future prosecutions.
David J. Scheffer, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former US ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, told VOA that Van Schaack’s emphasis on the “systemic” nature of war crimes alleged was important.
“It recognises, rather formally, that the commission of war crimes by the Russian military is not a series of isolated crimes, but rather part of an overall plan and being carried out on a large scale,” Scheffer said.
“This is not said lightly, because once it is determined that war crimes are being committed systemically, it involves sophisticated planning, organization and execution, which cannot normally take place. only at the management level.
In this case, he added, “the investigation takes on a much broader and more meaningful character, because here you are going upwards. You are trying to establish a superior responsibility compared to civilian leaders like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, or command responsibility vis-à-vis the military commanders of the Ministry of Defense.”
New tone of the United States
The United States has not always been broadly supportive of efforts to establish international criminal law standards, but in this case the Biden administration has actively supported various ongoing investigations, including direct cooperation with the International Criminal Court. .
“It’s a truly remarkable shift in the United States’ stance on international criminal law, compared to several previous administrations, to see this level of involvement,” said Marti Flacks, director of the Human Rights Initiative. man at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, at VOA. “It’s a sign, in part, of how serious, widespread and systematic the crimes in Ukraine are at this point.”
In past conflicts, including the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, the prosecution of war criminals has been a slow process. However, Flacks said, the combination of surveillance technology and an apparent Russian willingness to flagrantly violate international law could lead to an increased pace of indictments.
“I would expect some of these charges to come out in a few months, not a few years,” she said. “The question is how long will it take to prosecute, which of course requires a defendant. And that’s where we may be playing a very long game, in terms of preserving that evidence and , and to have these procedures ready to go when… we can take someone into custody.”
Indictments can be sealed
In the event that cases against Russian individuals are complicated by the defendant remaining in Russia, Van Schaack said prosecutors have the option of issuing indictments “in absentia” in order to establish evidence and issue arrest warrants.
CSIS’s Flacks said she would also expect some indictments to be issued under seal, so as not to alert individuals that there are active arrest warrants naming them.
“It’s actually very convenient,” she said. “You don’t want to announce that someone is wanted and deter them from going to a place where they could be arrested.”
Van Schaack’s comments come just as Russian sources claim to have evidence of a war crime committed by Ukrainian forces.
A clip of video widely circulated on Russian social media shows a group of Russian soldiers exiting a building, appearing to surrender to Ukrainian forces and being ordered to lie down on the ground. With several Russian soldiers already on the ground, another person follows them out of the building and appears to be firing a gun at the Ukrainian troops. The video cuts out, but another scene, apparently shot later, appears to show the Russians lying on the ground still in similar positions, but now dead in pools of blood.
Asked to speak about the video, Van Schaack said US officials were monitoring the situation closely and stressed that the laws of war must be respected by both sides in the conflict.
However, she added, “When we look at the scale of the criminality exhibited by the Russian forces, it is huge compared to the allegations that we have seen against the Ukrainian forces. And likewise, we see a very big difference in the reaction to such allegations. Russia inevitably responds with propaganda, denial, misinformation and misinformation, while Ukrainian authorities have generally acknowledged the abuses, denounced them and pledged to investigate them. About them.
The Russian Embassy in Washington responded to Van Schaack’s statements with a Facebook post.
“We have taken note of the statements of Goodwill Ambassador on International Criminal Justice Beth [Van Schaack] on the killing of captured Russian servicemen by Ukrainian neo-Nazis,” the statement said. “The official declined to directly condemn the massacre of our unarmed soldiers, despite the confirmation of the authenticity of the relevant video documents by American journalists , who failed to quell the tragedy.”
He continued: “The diplomat cynically referred to the fact that the Russian army’s ‘war crimes’ are recorded ‘much more often’ than those committed by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. At the same time, the Department of State has once again failed to provide any evidence of acts of violence allegedly committed by our military.”