In a timely discussion Wednesday at the UCLA School of Law, two UCLA scholars and an international lawyer sought to answer whether Russia could be charged with war crimes for its actions in Ukraine.
The panelists did not reach a definitive conclusion. But they covered a series of topics that help explain the current state of war crimes prosecution, as well as what may help bring the perpetrators to justice in the future.
Numerous war crimes have been reported throughout Ukraine, where the death toll is estimated to be in the tens of thousands. But the event’s moderator, Alexandra Lieben, deputy director of the UCLA Burkle Center for International Relations, said the latest conflict only extends a tragic history under Vladimir Putin that also includes the second Chechen War in 1999, Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 and its military intervention in Syria in 2015.
“So we saw the same pattern emerge again,” Lieben said. “Could this be a turning point? Could Russian commanders and perhaps even President Putin himself be held accountable for what’s happening in the conflict in Ukraine and prisoners or people who are forcibly relocated to Russia?”
The panelists were UCLA political science professor Daniel Treisman; Jessica Peake, director of the law school’s international and comparative law program; and via videoconference from London, Alexandre Prezanti, a legal advisor who specializes in international criminal law, human rights and sanctions. The event, which was also streamed online, was co-sponsored by the Burkle Center, the UCLA Promise Institute for International Human Rights, and the UCLA Center for European and Russian Studies.
“From the first days of the war, we’ve been witnessing pretty horrific evidence of war crimes,” Treisman said. “There’s the apparently deliberate bombing of civilians in schools, hospitals, shopping malls — clearly atrocities that have been ordered by higher-up officials. And then there’s the ground-level torture, rape and murder of civilians.”
Treisman said such crimes by the Russian armed forces have rarely been punished — “or even acknowledged,” he added — in the past. “The question is whether today, in the Ukraine, [those war crimes] will be more systematically investigated, recorded and prosecuted.”
What’s different in Ukraine from previous Russian conflicts, Treisman said, is that the current war was “completely unprovoked.” While there were security issues in Chechnya and a civil war in Syria at the time of those actions, Ukraine posed no danger to anyone.
Peake said that in spite of Russia's continued characterization of the event as a “special military operation,” the invasion is clearly an international armed conflict, which means that the international legal definition of “war crimes” is certainly in play.
She cited a report from the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine that documented numerous war crimes and human rights violations during the first two months of the war.
“They have found the relentless use of explosive weapons which are killing and injuring scores of civilians and devastating entire neighborhoods,” she said. “The commission has also documented patterns of summary executions, unlawful confinement, torture, ill treatment, rape and other sexual violence committed in areas occupied by the Russian armed forces.”
Efforts to hold Russia and its military accountable for war crimes include an investigation at the International Criminal Court, or ICC, and domestic prosecutions in Ukraine.
But Peake said the ICC process will likely take a very long time, and at best might lead to the prosecution of only a handful of high-level perpetrators. And the approach of trying war crimes within Ukraine is challenging, too: Trying crimes against foreign nationals is extremely difficult without plenty of international assistance, Peake said.
Prezanti said there has been “unprecedented” support from the global community to bring war crimes charges against Russia. “International lawyers are literally throwing themselves at the situation,” he said.
But he, too, acknowledged the overwhelming obstacles of bringing Russian actors to account. For one thing, most perpetrators are fighting in Ukraine, dead or back in Russia, where, Prezanti said, they are protected from being extradited to face justice abroad.
“The second challenge is access to evidence,” Prezanti said. “[Ukraine] is a dangerous place to send investigators, and many witnesses and much evidence are beyond the contact line.”
There’s also the daunting history of war crimes prosecution: In its 20 years of existence, Prezanti said, the ICC has delivered just four convictions and two acquittals.
If efforts to hold Russia accountable seem limited now, there is some faint hope because of observers’ ability — thanks especially to smartphones — to record and preserve evidence on video. By setting up a central repository to store, analyze and classify that evidence, he said, investigators could have at their disposal a viable historical record of today’s events.
“Dictators like Putin really care about their place in history,” Prezanti said. “But in 100 years’ time, another Putin can’t stand up and say, ‘Let’s make Russia great again,’” he said. “Because we’ll have this history well documented. And I think that is probably the best thing we can achieve right now.”