When President Biden met with troops in Poland on March 25, he called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal,” a term he has used since to describe the Ukraine invading president. But what, exactly, is a war criminal? And does the definition fit Putin?
War crimes were defined in the Kellogg-Briand Pact, the Hague and Geneva Conventions and at the Nuremberg Trials after World War II that adjudicated the worst of the Nazi perpetrators.
In 1998 the Rome Statute was ratified, the legal basis of the International Criminal Court. Article 8 updates the definition of war crimes, which are actions that can occur during either international armed conflict, such as in Ukraine, or in an armed conflict not of an international nature, such as Darfur.
Defining war crimes
The definition is a litany of the most heinous violations perpetrated on innocent human beings. It includes intentionally directing attacks on civilians, like Putin’s attacks on children, attacks on hospitals and humanitarian providers, like Putin’s attacks on maternity hospitals, bombarding towns, villages and buildings that are not military objectives, like Putin’s wanton destruction of thousands of homes in Kyiv and Mariupol and intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, and historic monuments, like the destruction of Kyiv’s Freedom Square.
War crimes also include using weapons that are outlawed because of their inhumane effects on victims – like Putin’s use of thermobaric bombs.
These crimes are occurring in Ukraine every day, every hour, every minute under Vladimir Putin’s leadership.
Putin is a war criminal. His crimes violate our most deeply-held need to believe in a moral universe.
His unprovoked attack on Ukraine has forced 4 million people, nearly all of them women and children, to abandon their homeland and to flee, with nothing for safety in a strange country. Husbands, fathers, brothers and sons remain behind to fight – along with the elderly, who are too old and too frightened to run and the ill, who cannot leave. Another 6.5 million people are displaced from their homes but remain within the borders of Ukraine.
Putin has destroyed everything. There is no medicine, no food, no water, no sanitation. Soon massive starvation and a public health catastrophe will claim yet more lives of those still in Ukraine.
A Ukrainian friend of mine in the United States said, “What if they bomb the cemetery where my parents are buried?”
No one is safe. Not even the dead.
What happens to war criminals after a war?
Prosecuting war criminals
Some war criminals found guilty at Nuremberg were hanged. Since then, international tribunals have abolished the death penalty. Convicted war criminals from former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Congo, Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Guatemala, Syria and other places spend between 15-30 years in prison. There is no statute of limitations on war crimes, and perpetrators can be arrested and prosecuted in international or domestic courts long after committing the offenses.
Investigating war crimes
War crimes are happening in many places. International laws hold war criminals to account and provide some deterrence, retribution and dignity and honor for millions of victims and victim-survivors of these atrocities. There cannot be lasting peace without justice.
Current investigations include the following:
Ethiopia: Fatou Bensouda, former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, is leading the UN International Commission of Inquiry into Ethiopia. The war that began in November 2020 led to a UN report of possible war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Syria: The UN established the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic in 2011 to investigate alleged violations of international human rights law, particularly war crimes. The goal is to identify those responsible and to bring perpetrators to account.
Afghanistan: The International Criminal Court officially opened an investigation on March 5 into war crimes in Afghanistan carried out by the Taliban and Islamic State – Khorasan (IS-K) since 2002.
Georgia and Ukraine: On March 10 the International Criminal Court announced applications for arrest warrants of three people for war crimes in connection with Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008. And the investigation into Russia’s crimes perpetrated in Ukraine since 2013 is underway now.
As Cicero wrote, “Money provides the sinews of war.” Without it, weapons can’t be made, soldiers can’t be fed, bombs can’t be dropped. In addition to extreme federal financial sanctions on Russia, U.S. states, cities, colleges and organizations are now divesting their funds from companies complicit with the invasion in Ukraine, an action with precedent in divestment from Sudan and Iran.
Minnesota’s legislature joined the nation-wide divestment movement on March 29. Minnesotans don’t want their state pension funds supporting the devastation in Ukraine and of Ukrainians.
But as important as divestment is, the corollary is equally as important: investment. Minnesota State Sen. Sandy Pappas (DFL-St. Paul) introduced SF 4373, Sen. Kari Dziedzic (DFL-Minneapolis) introduced SF 4368, and State Rep. Sydney Jordan (DFL-Minneapolis) has a companion bill in the House to provide $10 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine. In light of the state budget surplus of $9.3 billion, this is a small gesture: 0.1 percent of that surplus.
Pappas said, “We can show Ukrainians that we see you, we care, and we are with you in your struggle for independence and democracy.” Support Minnesotans’ aid to Ukraine and Ukrainians – now.
Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, an adjunct professor of law, and the representative of World Without Genocide to the UN Department of Global Communications.