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Prosecuting Russian War Crimes May Take Decades

The Russian military, in retreat after defeat in cities around Ukraine’s capital, left behind such horror that war crimes investigators are likely to be kept busy for months, if not years, Politico reports. International humanitarian law experts say the atrocities emerging from Ukraine are not how modern conflict is supposed to look. Bodies were strewn across the northern countryside, including Bucha, where officials said at least 400 civilians were killed, with more than 260 buried in mass graves. Dozens were found on the streets outside their homes, their hands bound, with some shot in the head. In Mariupol, Russian forces allegedly fired indiscriminately and used bombs to level an art school where some 400 civilians were sheltering. The World Health Organization has verified 64 attacks on health facilities.


The International Criminal Court prosecutor has already started an investigation and the French Interior Ministry of Justice has sent doctors and more than a dozen crime scene investigators to Ukraine to collect evidence for possible war crimes charges. War crimes cases are notoriously difficult to prove and prosecute. Even with the right evidence and eyewitness accounts, the murder of civilians by Russian forces may not present a clear cut case. The international legal basis for prosecution is not universally accepted, and context, intent and often geopolitics matter. Because of these complications, the accused can wait decades to face any form of justice. What makes a violation a war crime in one international treaty or convention may not make it a war crime in another. Since being drafted and updated in 1949, the Geneva Conventions have been ratified by 196 states, including all member states of the United Nations. There is no specified definition of war crimes. Instead, the conventions focus on protecting people who are no longer in conflict.

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