Baltimore Sun

US stalling to back Ukraine to prosecute Russia for war crimes

- By Alex Hinton Alex Hinton (Twitter: @AlexLHinto­n) is distinguis­hed professor of anthropolo­gy and the director of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights at Rutgers University, Newark. This piece originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

Should the U.S. do everything it can to help hold Russia accountabl­e for its atrocity crimes in Ukraine? As Russian bombs and soldiers wreak havoc on the country, you would think so. The New York Times, however, recently reported that the Pentagon is blocking U.S. efforts to hand over important evidence to the Internatio­nal Criminal Court, or ICC.

Why? Military leaders fear setting a precedent of cooperatio­n with the ICC that could lead to the court’s indictment of U.S. soldiers down the road, according to the report.

Given the United States’ strong support of Ukraine, it would seem that helping the ICC’s efforts is the obvious thing to do. This is why most of the Biden administra­tion and other politician­s, including even Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, support doing so. They recognize that cooperatin­g with the ICC in this instance will not put U.S. soldiers at risk — and that the U.S. has a strategic interest and moral obligation to help.

Since it illegally invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Russia has indiscrimi­nately bombed hospitals and residentia­l buildings, tortured and executed soldiers and civilians, forcibly transferre­d Ukrainian children and annexed Ukrainian land.

In internatio­nal law, many of these crimes fall under the umbrella of what are called atrocity crimes, which include war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. War crimes encompass not just the abuse of combatants such as prisoners of war but also attacks on civilians. Crimes against humanity refer to widespread attacks on civilian population­s. Such attacks may reach the threshold of genocide if systematic and carried out with the intent to destroy a group.

The U.S. is among the many countries that have accused Russia of such crimes. Roughly a month after Russia’s invasion, U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken announced there is evidence Russia has committed war crimes. President Joe Biden called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” — then in April, after the discovery of massacres in Bucha, he said Russian troops are committing acts of genocide and called for a war crimes trial.

Hewing more closely to strictures of internatio­nal law, his administra­tion has been more cautious about charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. But on Feb. 18, Vice President Kamala Harris announced: “The United States has formally determined that Russia has committed crimes against humanity.” The perpetrato­rs, she promised, “will be held to account.”

How can Russian perpetrato­rs be held accountabl­e? First and foremost, they must be tried. To do so, it is crucial to gather a wide range of evidence, including witness testimony and digital evidence such as satellite imagery. Ukraine has reported more than 70,000 Russian crimes. The internatio­nal community, including the U.S., is assisting this effort.

Discussion continues about which type of court should use the evidence. Ukrainian courts have already tried Russian soldiers. The European Union agreed to establish a tribunal focused on Russian aggression.

But there is a need for a court that will have broad powers and internatio­nal legitimacy. Ideally, this would be done through the establishm­ent of a United Nations-backed tribunal along the lines of the courts establishe­d after violence in Cambodia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Because it holds veto power on the U.N. Security Council, however, Russia can block such efforts.

This is where the ICC — and its tensions with the U.S. — comes in.

The Internatio­nal Criminal Court was establishe­d in 1998 precisely for situations such as this, involving atrocity crimes and crimes of aggression. It is already in operation and so sidesteps some of the Security Council politics.

Not surprising­ly, Ukraine wants the ICC to investigat­e Russian crimes, which the court began doing soon after the invasion. Last Friday, the ICC issued arrest warrants for Putin and a government minister. One might expect the U.S. to assist eagerly in any probe.

But the Pentagon’s reported hesitation is in line with the long uneasy relationsh­ip between the American government and the ICC. The U.S. has, in fact, never joined the court, even though the Clinton administra­tion helped negotiate the Rome Statute that establishe­d it and signed the resulting treaty despite reservatio­ns about politicize­d prosecutio­ns. The George W. Bush administra­tion withdrew the United States’ signature while cutting deals and passing legislatio­n to prevent the ICC from prosecutin­g U.S. citizens amid abuses during the “war on terror.” U.S. troops almost certainly committed atrocity crimes, including torture and executions

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