The images and stories from recaptured areas in Ukraine have shocked the world again in the past week. The mass graves in Izium and the allegation of torture are internationally condemned.
Camilla Guldahl Cooper at the Staff School is considered one of Norway’s foremost experts on international law. She points out that it is not possible to draw conclusions until there has been an investigation and preferably also a trial.
– But the information and images that come out are very serious. The extent of damage to civilian persons and objects is extensive, and questions must be asked as to whether sufficient precautions have been taken to spare civilians. If this has not been done, the attacks could be arbitrary and thus a war crime, says Cooper to NTB.
– The accusations of torture are particularly serious as this is absolutely prohibited, regardless of whether they are aimed at combatants or civilians, she says.
Yale professor Harold Koh, described by the university as one of America’s leading experts on international law and human rights, says Putin is openly committing war crimes. Koh also represents Ukraine in the International Court of Justice in The Hague (ICJ).
– When Russia cannot enter an area, they use indiscriminate grenade attacks from a distance and kill civilians with prohibited methods and weapons. When they confront civilians up close, they use wanton and shocking brutality like in Butsja and Izium, says Koh to NTB.
Russia has repeatedly denied that it committed war crimes in the war in Ukraine.
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Cooper says that actions that are committed in the same area for a limited period of time increase the likelihood that the same people are behind it.
– This helps to support that it is a systematic problem, and not isolated incidents that have caused greater unintentional collateral damage to civilians than expected. This also strengthens the suspicion that there are misleading actions and thus war crimes, says Cooper.
She points out that the comparison with other areas is important in order to discover whether it is part of the Russian plan, and thus something that the strategic level can and should be held responsible for.
– Military commanders have a responsibility to prevent subordinate forces from committing war crimes. The large scale of potential war crimes that are uncovered means that the commanders cannot claim that they did not know about it, she says.
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Koh says it is critical for the world to rally around an open investigation. Both the US intelligence services, UN investigators, human rights organizations and activists like those in Bellingcat play a role in documenting what has happened.
– Whether Russian leaders can be arrested and put on trial will become clear in time. But right now there is a risk for them if they travel or try to move valuables abroad, Koh points out.
He sees it as surprising if some senior leaders do not leave the country and are arrested.
– They can be test cases, and such leaders can also turn around and accuse them higher up, like Putin himself, says Koh.
This is how it can be proven
Cooper points out that war crimes are treated the same as other crimes. An investigation must reveal who has been involved and how.
– It is also important to clarify whether they understood what they were involved in. Military forces have a duty to follow orders, but not if it is obvious that they are illegal. So orders to commit war crimes will not absolve the soldiers of responsibility, says the international law expert.
– In addition to the perpetrators themselves, others who participate can also be held responsible. As mentioned military commanders if they knew about it or should have known about it, and did not do enough to stop it, she says.
A possible problem is that Russia refuses to cooperate – both in the form of sharing information with the investigation, and to recognize any criminal proceedings.
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Cooper says that although the war is very well documented, there will be a lot of information that will be difficult to access.
– This is one of the reasons why, among other things, the International Criminal Court has already launched its investigation, in order to collect as much information as possible, she says.
The international law expert says that in addition to the criminal court, other countries can contribute. If a wanted Russian comes to Norway, he can be arrested here.
– So someone will probably be held responsible, but who and how many is still unclear, says Camilla Guldahl Cooper at Staff School.