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What war crimes is Russia accused of?

Published on 2023-05-28 10:17:48 source:NBC News

The International Criminal Court in the Hague has issued an arrest warrant against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It accuses him of being responsible for war crimes in Ukraine, including the unlawful deportation of children.

Russia's Commissioner for Children's Rights, Ms Maria Lvova-Belova, is also subject to an arrest warrant.

According to Ukraine, tens of thousands of possible war crimes have been carried out by Russian forces since they invaded Ukraine in February last year.

"Even war has rules", as the International Committee of the Red Cross says.

These are set out in treaties called the Geneva Conventions along with other international laws and agreements.

Military forces cannot deliberately attack civilians - nor the infrastructure that is vital to their survival.

Some weapons are banned because of the indiscriminate or appalling suffering they cause - such as anti-personnel landmines, and chemical or biological weapons.

The sick and wounded must be cared for - including injured soldiers, who have rights as prisoners of war.

Serious offences such as murder, rape or mass persecution of a group are known as "crimes against humanity" or in some circumstances "genocide".

The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine has said there is evidence of the illegal transfer of hundreds of Ukrainian children to Russia.

Russia has introduced policies such as forcing children to take Russian citizenship and placing them in foster families to "create a framework in which some of the children may end up remaining permanently" in Russia, the commission's report notes.

While the transfers were supposed to be temporary, "most became prolonged", with both parents and children facing "an array of obstacles in establishing contact", the UN investigators wrote.

Ukraine government figures put the number of children forcibly taken to Russia at 16,221.

These forced deportations "violate international humanitarian law and amount to a war crime", concludes the UN report.

The UN said that in addition to the rapes, killings and "widespread" torture, Moscow could be responsible for the even more serious "crimes against humanity" - notably the wave of Russian attacks on Ukraine's energy infrastructure that began last October.

Mass burial sites have been found in several parts of Ukraine previously occupied by Russian troops, including some holding civilian bodies showing signs of torture.

Ukraine's courts have already prosecuted one Russian soldier.

21-year-old Russian tank commander Vadim Shishimarin was jailed for life for shooting an unarmed civilian, 62-year-old Oleksandr Shelipov, in the north-eastern village of Chupakhivka, a few days after the invasion began.

It may prove easier, however, to prosecute individual soldiers for war crimes than military commanders or senior politicians.

Hugh Williamson of Human Rights Watch says establishing the "chain of command" is very important for any future trials, including whether a leader authorised an atrocity - or turned a blind eye to it.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is investigating war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine - going back as far as 2013, before Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Its chief prosecutor, British lawyer Karim Khan, believes there is a reasonable basis to believe war crimes have been carried out.

However, the ICC has no powers to arrest suspects, and Russia is not a signatory to the agreement which set up the court - so it is unlikely to extradite any suspects.

The ICC generally takes over prosecutions for war crimes in countries where the court systems are too weak to carry out the prosecutions themselves.

So far, however, it seems Ukraine's courts have been able to mount their own cases. By the end of August, its prosecutor general had charged 135 suspected war criminals.

The ICC can bring a prosecution against political leaders for "waging aggressive war". This covers an unjustified invasion or conflict not undertaken in self-defence.

However, Professor Philippe Sands, an expert on international law at University College London, says the ICC couldn't prosecute Russian leaders such as President Vladimir Putin for this - again, because the country isn't a signatory to the court.

In theory, the UN Security Council could ask the ICC to investigate this offence. But Russia could veto this.

Prof Sands says world leaders should set up a one-off tribunal to prosecute the crime of aggression in Ukraine.

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