When the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) visited the city of Bucha, which was liberated from Russian occupation, Karim Khan confirmed that war crimes were committed there.
The ICC won’t be a panacea for alleged atrocities by Russia in Ukraine because it is a court of last resort, with a global mandate and limited resources.
But it’s not as simple as filing a case at a courthouse; there are practical and political limits to what the ICC can do in any of the crimes it investigates and prosecutes.
The ICC itself is based in the Hague, the Netherlands, but it has 123 member nations all over the world.
The court’s remit is to try grievous crimes like war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity — collectively known as atrocity crimes — and aggression, but it’s not intended to replace national courts, explained Kelebogile Zvobgo, assistant professor of government at the College of William & Mary and founder of the International Justice Lab.
“It’s a court of last resort,” said Zvobgo. “The court only has jurisdiction in places unwilling or unable to investigate or prosecute their own cases.”
Among those challenges, in this case, is the fact that neither Russia nor Ukraine is a party to the ICC, although Ukraine recognizes the court’s jurisdiction, so the court can prosecute those responsible for atrocity crimes committed in Ukraine.
Given that the Russian government denies waging war in Ukraine in the first place, much less committing atrocities there, the ICC could be an appropriate mechanism for holding Kremlin officials accountable. But the ICC is not the only avenue to pursue justice for atrocity crimes, and it’s far from guaranteed that Putin or any of his high-level associates would ever stand trial.
The bombing of a train station in Ukraine where many were gathered to evacuate. The murder of countless civilians in Bucha and other areas.
While it’s possible to try war crimes in national courts, investigators from the International Criminal Court (ICC) are already working in Ukraine to gather and vet evidence, and a number of nations have already referred the case to the global court, signaling a strong push to bring such crimes to trial.
Karim Khan commented on this on his Twitter page.
“Ukraine is a crime scene. We’re here because we have reasonable grounds to believe that crimes within the jurisdiction of the ICC are being committed. We have to pierce the fog of war to get to the truth,” Khan stated.
The team of International Criminal Court investigators made their first visit to Ukraine to investigate war crimes in the beginning of March.
Khan said that he would keep trying to get Russia to engage with his war crimes investigation in Ukraine.
Speaking at a briefing in Kyiv after visiting a town in the region where Ukraine says atrocities were committed against civilians under recent Russian occupation, Khan said: “I’ll keep trying to approach, for the third time, the Russian Federation.”
Russia has dismissed allegations its troops committed war crimes in Ukraine since the Feb. 24 invasion as “fake news,” appropriating the term frequently used by Putin pal Donald Trump.
As evidence of Russian atrocities against Ukraine builds, so do calls to bring the perpetrators to justice — including from President Joe Biden, who recently said Russian President Vladmir Putin should be tried for war crimes.
“You saw what happened in Bucha,” said Biden. “We have to gather the information … and we have to get all the detail so this can be an actual, have a war crimes trial,” Biden said, calling Putin “a war criminal.”
On March 16, the Council of Europe – Europe’s largest intergovernmental organization – expelled Russia for abuses in Ukraine.
The Council, set up after World War II to promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe, deemed Russia’s invasion incompatible with membership in the organization.
Russia, a member since 1996, had announced one day earlier, on March 15, that it would leave. The decision would have taken effect at the end of the year, on December 31. Apparently trying to beat Russia to the punch, the Council kicked Russia out.