With news of civilian casualties mounting in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it becomes clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin is deliberately attacking non-combatants as part of his military strategy. The Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Karim Khan, has announced that they have initiated investigations on the alleged war crimes, genocide, and other crimes against humanity that Russia may have committed.
The process to start the investigation was greatly expedited after 39 nations, including France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, submitted their referral for the investigation to the ICC. This allowed Khan to bypass months’ worth of work needed to get approval from the court in The Hague. According to Khan, an “advanced team” of investigators was already sent to Ukraine.
In a segment with BBC 4 Radio, the British lawyer shared how the gesture from the countries “allows us to jump-start investigations” and was proof of the international community’s growing concerns on the events in Ukraine.
“Individuals have rights to have their interests vindicated and for justice to prevail. That can only take place if [the] evidence is independently and impartially collected and assessed and then in due course, decisions can be made regarding whether or not there’s criminal responsibility, and then the judges ultimately will decide,” said Khan.
The investigation of the ICC will go back as far as 2013, during the events that lead to the Russian annexation of Crimea.
According to the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, at least 536 civilian lives, 13 of which are children, have been lost since February 24. These lives have been lost due to the Russian bombardment of civilian structures. However, some researchers and the Ukrainian government itself say that the real figure is much higher, with the latter claiming casualties of upwards of 2,000. More so, over 1 million refugees have now been displaced from Ukraine, according to the UN Refugee Agency.
Russian spokesperson Dmitry Peskov had denied such claims stating that “Russian forces are not launching any strikes at civilian infrastructure targets or residential complexes.”
Through the smoke of war and disinformation, there is one thing we can be sure of: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is already a violation of international law. According to John Bellinger, an adjunct senior fellow at the non-partisan think thank Council on Foreign Relations, contemporary rules of warfare clearly disallow members of the UN to use force against the “territorial integrity or political independence of any state” as per Article 2(4) of the UN Charter. Regardless, the authorities will soon determine this for the world to see.
What are the Modern Rules of Warfare?
As ironic as it may seem, war is bound by a set of rules that ensures the prevention of unnecessary loss of life. It keeps the fighting as humane as possible, with tactics and weapons deemed inhumane left unused upon agreement. The rules of war, sometimes referred to as the law of armed conflict or the international humanitarian law, are guidelines derived from international agreements across history, including the Geneva Convention, the UN Charter, and the conventions at The Hague.
Establishing rules for warfare began in 1864 during the first Geneva Convention. There it was proclaimed that all injured soldiers, regardless of nationality or allegiance, had the right to receive medical aid. Over the decades, the rules of war were altered to adapt to advancements in military technology and tactics.
In modern times, the basic principles of international humanitarian law revolve around protecting civilians and other noncombatants. This limits attack to “military objectives” and prohibits any deliberate harm on “civilian objects.”
Military objectives is an umbrella term that encompasses people and objects that make active contributions to military action (e.g., soldiers and their weapons). Civilian objects are defined as individuals and properties that do not fall under military objectives. Direct attacks toward civilian objects such as residential buildings, businesses, houses of worship, schools, hospitals, and other public buildings are prohibited unless they are being used to disguise military operations. All precautions to minimize civilian casualties must be undertaken in the event attacks affecting civilian objects cannot be avoided.
The use of indiscriminate weapons is also prohibited under the laws of warfare. These include anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions, as these weapons cause incidental loss of civilian life or damage to civilian property. Firsthand videos of Russia using the latter in the war in Ukraine have been mounting over the internet and can be used in a violation case.
Can the ICC Make Russia Accountable, If Proven Guilty of War Crimes?
Unfortunately, even if the ICC found that Russia has committed war crimes, the procedures that can hold Moscow accountable remain unclear. The ICC notes that the Russian Federation is not part of the treaty that created the court. This brings the possibility of the country denying the ICC’s legal authority over them.
“If there is an indictment against any Russian officials, it is very unlikely that they would ever be arrested and taken to the Hague,” said Bellinger.
Marie Struthers of Amnesty International admits in a statement with TIME that international institutions do not have as much judicial power as some would like. “On Russia, traditionally, these international mechanisms have been rather weak,” she said. However, she remained hopeful that the scale of the Russian invasion and the international support for Ukraine might lead to a different result.
“Both of which leads me to say, not with 100% certainty, but that maybe we will come out of this particular horrible conflict with some mechanism that’s more robust in terms of holding the Russian military and perhaps even the President accountable.”
“We’ll have to see whether international institutions like the UN, the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, and the General Assembly can rise to this challenge,” said Belligender, who also believes that today’s circumstances will lead to a different result for the international community.
The United Nations General Assembly last March 2 concluded its meetings with a historic vote in favor of reprimanding the Russian Federation for the invasion of Ukraine. The resolution, which is backed by 141 of 193 members of the UN, demanded Russia to withdraw its military forces from Ukrainian soil immediately.
While resolutions from the General Assembly are rather symbolic and are not legally binding, it does bring significant political pressure. With a landslide vote in a rare emergency assembly, Russia has become further isolated from the rest of the world.
“We’ll have to see whether international institutions like the UN, the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, and the General Assembly can rise to this challenge,” said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to reporters after the vote.
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