Opinion | Document War Crimes in Ukraine (Even if Putin Never Faces Justice)

Delivering justice (gathering evidence, securing an indictment, holding a fair trial) is difficult, time-consuming, and costly. As such, few war crimes cases lead to punishment. Although the ICC can initiate the prosecution of any act of genocide, crime against humanity or war crime on its own, a charge of the crime of aggression, the one most applicable to Mr. Putin and his lieutenants, would have to be initiated by the United States. United Nations Security Council, where he would face a certain Russian veto. Furthermore, Russia does not recognize the ICC and would not hand over suspects.

Ukraine is also not a party to the treaty that established the court, but has allowed it jurisdiction over crimes committed on Ukrainian soil. The United States, for its part, has its own history of hostility to the ICC, and when indicting Putin for war crimes, Biden did not clarify which forum should be responsible for the prosecution.

However, none of these obstacles should impede the search for justice. Even if the process is difficult and drags on for months and years, it is important that the story remains as a credible, verified and prosecuted forensic record of specific crimes in Ukraine. They must be named, their actions specified and, if possible, the culprits must be locked up. The very fact that Russia argues that all the atrocities were fabricated requires a detailed and incontrovertible judicial response.

The Biden administration and its allies have done an admirable job of piercing the Kremlin’s propaganda with accurate intelligence. An authorized war crimes registry would serve the same purpose in the future.

It would be nice if the Biden administration found a way to cooperate with the ICC in collecting evidence, even if the law prevents it from helping to fund the effort. There are other options: A special tribunal could be established without UN backing, and various nations, including the United States, could claim universal jurisdiction and hold their own trials. But too many investigations would also dilute the public impact of the legal process, and no court has the authority or mandate of the ICC.

Whatever is done, seeking justice against Putin and others responsible for war crimes in Ukraine is a long-term goal. Russia is not backing down. He’s repositioning his forces for an assault in the east. And Russia’s involvement in the faltering peace talks is looking more and more like a ploy. Bucha’s horrors have led to talk of offering Ukraine more deadly weapons and imposing even more sanctions. These must be the focus of the West’s efforts to help Ukraine.

But it is also imperative to ensure that the horrific evidence of the criminal atrocities on display in Bucha and so many other places is quickly collected while it is still there and that witnesses are questioned while their memories are still alive. Posterity must know what really happened. You have to give justice a chance.

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