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With names like Bucha and Mariupol quickly becoming synonymous in the world’s mind with atrocities against civilians, Russia faces growing accusations of breaching international law.

With Vladimir Putin behind Russia's invasion of Ukraine, leading to a death toll of thousands of civilians and causing complete devastation throughout the second largest country in Europe, most are wondering if he will be held accountable for his horrific actions as a leader. And to what extent that would be possible.

A war criminal is defined as any person, leader or not, who violates international laws during armed conflict between countries. Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is accusing Vladimir Putin of encouraging Russian forces to commit acts of genocide on innocent civilians. Such attacks include the mass killings of residents in Bucha and the 16 March airstrike on Mariupol Theatre that killed 300 of the more than 1,300 women and children seeking shelter. The world was in shock after learning that the defenseless victims made an effort to let Russian forces know that there were women and children in the building.

When carrying out such random acts of violence against innocent civilians, including young children with no real understanding of war, the situation quickly escalates to what many are terming genocide. Russia’s defense ministry, meanwhile, denies any wrongdoing and claims images of civilian corpses in Bucha, for example, “do not correspond to reality”. However, with new reports of alleged atrocities arriving with every day the war continues, including from the town of Borodianka, the rebuttals are far from convincing.

What is the international framework for prosecuting war crimes?

The fight for justice against war crimes began at the end of the 19th century to prevent combatants in war from using excessive force or causing harm to civilians. The International Court of Justice (ICJ), established in 1945 and resident in The Hague, consists of judges selected by United Nations members and exists to listen to disputes between countries – including accusations of war crimes. Ukraine would need to take its complaints to the ICJ to provide details on the dispute with Russia. 

On the other hand, the International Criminal Court (ICC), established in 2002, works to prosecute the individual people accused of committing war crimes. The ICC has jurisdiction to complete investigations on crimes committed in its 123 member states and by individuals belonging to said countries. If the United Nations Security Council involved with the ICJ requests the ICC to investigate, they may proceed with prosecution.

How feasible is prosecuting Vladimir Putin?

Despite the compelling evidence of criminal behaviour on behalf of Vladimir Putin, charging him with a war crime will take time and strategic steps. It will require the UN to ask the ICC to investigate, but given that Russia still holds a seat on its Security Council, that seems doubtful.

In theory, ICC could issue an arrest warrant for Putin – but it does not have its own police force to bring suspects into custody, and relies on individual states to do this. Russia, which does not recognise the ICC, is would likely not comply. Even if Putin were deposed or stood down as president, he would be further protected from the consequences of his alleged actions due to a bill he signed in 2020 that offers lifetime immunity to all former Russian presidents.

Many others in the chain of command could be at fault and potentially charged with war crimes if they had any knowledge of atrocities and failed to take action to stop them. Determining who is at fault would require a detailed investigation that begins with Putin and works its way down the ladder to Russian soldiers thought to be directly involved in the participation of attacks on innocent civilians.

Ironically, Ukraine has already begun proceedings against Russia in front of the ICJ for alleged false claims against it of genocide in the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces. But, as with any future proceedings against Putin, deliberations at international tribunals can continue for months and even years.

Have other leaders been convicted in international courts?

Some may find a slight glimmer of hope in knowing that several other public leaders have been convicted of war crimes. Many of these individuals committed heinous attacks in different countries or failed to take a stand when witnessing unlawful attacks on civilians. 

More than three dozen leaders have faced prosecution through the ICC, including Joseph Kony of Uganda, President Uhuru Kenyatta from Kenya, and Omar al-Bashir from Sudan. In addition, Bosnian Serb allies Radovan Karadžić and General Ratko Mladić both experienced prosecution for the atrocities under their command and received a life sentence. Mladić served in the military from 1965 until 1996 and was eventually found guilty of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for his participation in crimes against civilians. However, it took more than two decades for justice to be served due to a lengthy legal battle that stretched on for 20 years until 2017. 

Many are hoping that Vladimir Putin will also be held accountable for his actions one day. But as war in Ukraine grinds on over the bodies of its civilian population, that it is currently far from certain.

Written By: Olivium staff.


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