Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: War crimes in Bucha mark ‘turning point’
In early April, reports emerged that at least 300 civilians had been killed in Bucha. Despite vehement denials by the Russian authorities, satellite images outlining mass graves in the small Kyiv suburb gave the strongest indication yet that Russian troops had committed war crimes on Ukrainian soil.
Within days the UN General Assembly suspended Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, marking the first time a permanent member of the UN Security Council has had its membership revoked from a UN body.
Russia’s invasion prompted Germany to reverse its historic ban on supplying lethal weapons to conflict zones. Unprecedented economic sanctions have already sought to isolate Russia from the global economy. Controversially, the country was permitted to attend this week’s meeting of G20 finance ministers in Washington DC.
Harry Nedelcu, Policy Director at Rasmussen Global, believes Bucha marks a clear ‘turning point’ in the war and shows that global powers must go further, including imposing more sanctions, to stop Russia’s war machine. ‘After Bucha, we see that Russia’s goal is not only to destroy Ukraine militarily and destroy its ability to carve its own foreign policy, but it's to destroy Ukraine, destroy Ukrainians and to basically terrorise them into submission,’ he says. ‘It also begs the question of how many Buchas does there have to be and how many of these civilians have to die? Do we need to see the worst in order to get our act together and act?’
Lithuania has already stopped using Russian gas and Nedelcu says other states must follow suit. ‘The Western response is still crystallising,’ he says. ‘Hopefully we will still see enough resolve to get these sanctions to have an impact, which means you have to go for the gas. I think now we're at a point where we have to do everything – short of boots on the ground – to just stop the war.’
Bucha is not an isolated incident. Tens of thousands are believed to have been killed in the besieged port city of Mariupol. Ukraine’s Prosecutor General, Iryna Venediktova is already investigating thousands of war crimes committed by Russian troops across the country.
I think now we're at a point where we have to do everything - short of boots on the ground - to just stop the war
Policy Director, Rasmussen Global
In Europe, 12 countries have launched investigations into the atrocities. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police is also collecting evidence of alleged war crimes from people fleeing to Canada following the invasion.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) has launched an investigation and opened an online evidence portal for civilians to submit evidence directly to ICC investigators. Eurojust, Europe's agency for criminal justice cooperation, has also established a joint investigation team of prosecution units from Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland that will work with the ICC to coordinate exchanging and collecting information.
There has been an intense level of international media scrutiny and real-time images and videos coming out of Ukraine, and there are growing concerns that Bucha is only the ‘tip of the iceberg’ says Wendy Betts, director of eyeWitness to Atrocities, which seeks to bring accountability for atrocity crimes through verifiable footage received through its app.
Since the start of the invasion, the eyeWitness team has received more footage from Ukraine than it normally receives annually worldwide. All information submitted to the app is reviewed by lawyers, who verify and process the footage to ensure it meets the requirements of investigators. ‘You have to be able to authenticate it and verify it and combine it with a variety of other types of information to be able to prove these very complex crimes,’ says Betts. ‘I think Bucha does bring all of these threads to a head and you recognise that you need to be collecting this information in a way that's going to stand up to the denials.’
Betts says her team will pass footage on to Ukrainian prosecutors, the ICC, the UN and other national courts carrying out investigations. She says gathering the right type of evidence will be crucial to proving what’s been happening on the ground: ‘The things that are going to tell you who had those weapons, who probably fired them and from which direction they were fired – that type of information doesn't make very good copy for storytelling in the media, but that's the evidence. There's a lot of information out there about what's going on, but it's not information that will necessarily help prove the case against the perpetrators.’
There are many challenges facing both domestic and international moves to prosecute war crimes successfully in Ukraine, says Danya Chaikel, Co-Vice Chair of the IBA War Crimes Committee, which has compiled a comprehensive list of legal resources, including guidance on documenting evidence and ways that lawyers can support Ukraine through pro bono efforts.
‘Investigators and prosecutors in foreign jurisdictions will need to be properly equipped, in terms of human and financial resources, to adequately investigate these crimes,’ says Chaikel, who also currently consults with the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH). ‘Many are investigating remotely, by collecting evidence from the Ukrainian diaspora, and will need to quickly gain local knowledge and the sociocultural, historic, and cultural expertise which is necessary for comprehensive investigations.’
Chaikel says other countries must be mindful to manage processes carefully to minimise the risk of re-traumatising vulnerable witnesses. ‘We hope that these different jurisdictions will be transparent in their investigative and prosecutorial strategies, and act in a way that complements one another,’ she says. ‘As we see reports emerging of egregious sexual violence including rape and forced pregnancy in Ukraine, it is also clear that there is a need for domestic jurisdictions to focus on sexual violence in times of conflict in their investigations and prosecutions, which is not yet the case.’
Global efforts to prosecute war crimes in the country must also have a Ukraine-led approach, says Betts: ‘It is important not only for there to be coordination, but coordination led by the Ukrainian legal authorities on what they need and want, because justice done locally is always the most powerful.’
Image credit: Destroyed building, aftermath of shelling the civilian city, Bucha 2022. Алексей Синельников/Adobestock.com