In Boutcha, Irpin or Kramatorsk, each time the corpses of civilians are discovered strewing the streets of the Ukrainian towns that the Russian army has occupied, the international community is indignant and condemns the unbearable abuses committed by the invader. War crimes, crimes against humanity or even genocide, the terms used differ according to the government, but the means necessary to establish these facts remains the same: the investigation on the ground.
On March 3, the International Criminal Court, the institution responsible for trying people accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, crimes of aggression and war crimes, considers that there is “a reasonable basis” to believe that crimes within its jurisdiction are being committed by the Russian army in Ukraine. Prosecutor Karim Khan is therefore opening, at the request of the Ukrainian government, an “objective and independent” investigation aimed at shedding light on Russian abuses.
If Ukraine is not a member of the ICC, it has accepted its jurisdiction since 2014, unlike Russia, which has withdrawn its signature from the treaty establishing the Court. Created in 2002, the ICC issues binding decisions but has no means of enforcing them. Thus, to arrest natural persons, the only ones it has the right to judge, it must hope that the suspects are in a territory admitting its legitimacy.
Ten days after the start of the war, the United Nations Human Rights Council approves, at the request of Ukraine, the establishment of an independent international commission of inquiry into the human rights violations of which the Russian army. At the end of March, Norwegian judge Erik Mose was chosen to lead the investigation, which promises to last at least a year. Composed of 47 members, the committee is charged with the task of “collecting, assembling and analyzing the evidence attesting to violations of international humanitarian law.” By patiently collecting forensic evidence and questioning witnesses, this independent commission of inquiry must work with the holding of a future trial in mind.
And this Thursday, May 12, this same UN Human Rights Council tightened its grip on Russia by voting by a very large majority to create an investigation into the atrocities committed by Russia in the regions of kyiv, Cherniguiv, Kharkiv and Sumy. Unlike the previous one, this investigation is directly led by a UN commission of inquiry.
While the ICC and UN investigations were opened at the request of Ukraine, the local authorities have also been conducting their own investigations since the start of the conflict. The prosecutor’s office said it has to deal with more than 10,000 alleged war crimes so far, involving 622 suspects. “We are working to bring everyone responsible to justice,” said Irina Venediktova on April 4 in an interview with BFM TV.
In any case, history will remember that the first trial, scheduled in a few days, was revealing of this war: a young 21-year-old Russian soldier is accused of having shot, from his car, a 62-year-old civilian riding a bicycle at a few meters from his house.
Ukraine is not the only government to have opened an investigation, with several countries accusing Russia of attacking their nationals. In the name of “universal jurisdiction”, which authorizes other nations to set up special commissions in the event of war crimes, Germany, Spain, Sweden and even France have launched investigations and sent officers in the field. Currently, the French National Anti-Terrorist Prosecutor’s Office is leading four investigations.
In the shadow of international institutions, several non-governmental organizations are working to gather evidence likely to constitute the charges. Thus, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch remain essential actors of justice, on which the UN and the ICC rely heavily.
Thanks to their experts and their large territorial network, the NGOs collect testimonies, collect photos, list facts, and finally write reports that international courts can use as references. Sometimes, the International Criminal Court even calls on members of NGOs as expert witnesses. By bringing together all the possible evidence far from the diplomatic game, these organizations will allow the UN and the ICC in particular to qualify, when the time comes, more precisely the Russian exactions, between war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. .