Ukraine invasion: What is a war crime and is there evidence Russia is committing them?

ITV News at Ten Presenter Rageh Omaar looks at the history of war crimes

The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague has opened an investigation into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine.

The ICC launched its investigation at the beginning of March, amid Ukraine's rising civilian death toll and a widespread destruction of property. The probe could target senior officials believed to be responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide.

What is a war crime?

A war crime is the serious violation of the laws of war as defined by international customary law, international criminal law treaties, and international humanitarian law.

The Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocols form the basis of modern international humanitarian law, setting out how soldiers and civilians should be treated during war.

The original Geneva Convention was adopted in 1864, and four treaties were added after World War Two in 1949. Two Additional Protocols were adopted in 1977 which expanded the rules, and a third Protocol was agreed in 2005.

The four Geneva Conventions are:

  • Protect the sick, wounded, medical and religious personnel during conflict

  • Care for the wounded, sick and shipwrecked during war at sea

  • Treat prisoners of war with humanity

  • Protect all civilians, including those in occupied territory

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The 1949 Geneva Conventions were ratified by all United Nation states – 196 countries – but the Additional Protocols have not reached the same level of acceptance.

The list of war crimes, as defined under the Rome Statute of the ICC, is long and includes torture, serious injury to body or health, extensive destruction and appropriation of property, and execution of prisoners.

It also bans the use of weapons which cannot distinguish between civilian and military targets, eg. a nuclear chemical weapon, and bans the deliberate targeting of civilian areas – “intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities”.

Kharkiv's Freedom Square was hit by a Russian missile strike. Credit: AP

What evidence is emerging that war crimes have been committed by Russia?

Since the beginning of the war, Russian forces have repeatedly attacked Ukrainian medical facilities, striking at hospitals, ambulances, medics, patients and even newborns.There have also been several accounts of shelling in civilian areas.

In April, authorities and journalists found brutalised bodies in the Kyiv region as Russian troops withdrew.

The Kyiv suburb of Bucha has become synonymous with the worst atrocities of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, which has seen scores of civilians killed.

ITV News has investigated three separate atrocities in Bucha which reflect the wider indiscriminate assaults carried out by invading forces during the war.

According to witness testimony, Dmitro Stefianko was shot dead by the side of a road by Russian troops in March after encountering half a dozen of them on his way to look for supplies. Dmitro’s body eventually ended up in a mass grave next to St. Andrew’s Church in Bucha, with dozens of other civilians.

Dmitro's brother learns of his death after identifying his body at the mass grave. Credit: ITV News

There are multiple locations in Bucha where there is evidence Russian soldiers were engaged in orchestrated murder. We have investigated two of these massacres.

One was discovered on April 1 in the cellar of a Soviet-era children’s camp on the edge of a large park in Bucha. The bodies of five men were found in the basement.

Two miles to the south of the children’s camp is the site of another mass killing, where at least 11 people were murdered. The bodies of men bearing signs of torture were found to the side of an agriculture construction agency next to a builders yard, in a residential area.

Still, Russian officials have denied hitting civilian targets, deriding the mounting documentation of atrocities as “fake news” and claiming without evidence that dead and wounded civilians photographed were “crisis actors".

When do you establish whether war crimes have been committed?

Establishing whether war crimes have been carried out is something that tends to happen after war is over when all the evidence has been gathered, ITV News Europe Editor James Mates explains.

The Nürnberg trials, in which former leaders of Nazi Germany were prosecuted for war crimes happened after the conclusion of World War Two, as did the Tokyo trials, which tried leaders of the Empire of Japan for war crimes leading up to and during World War Two.

An investigation into whether war crimes have taken place is a lengthy process, in which all the evidence has to be forensically analysed before that judgement can be made, Prof Simpson explains.

The ICC will first look at visual evidence, e.g. video and pictures, and if the situation in Ukraine stabilises then the ICC will be invited to begin in-country investigations, however this is dependent on Ukraine retaining control.

“The outcome of any legal proceedings rather hinges on the outcome of the war in this case, given that the Russians are not going to invite the ICC in to investigate their own war crimes,” Prof Simpson adds.

ITV News Correspondent Dan Rivers reports from Irpin as Ukrainian forces, having reclaimed the town, see evidence of alleged war crimes

This video contains distressing images

What are the sanctions/consequences of war crimes?

At the conclusion of the Nürnberg trials in 1945, former leaders of Nazi Germany were either acquitted, sentenced to lengthy prison terms or sentenced to death.

Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadžić was found guilty of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity during the Bosnian War and sentenced to 40 years in prison and Théoneste Bagosora who played a key role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide was sentenced to life imprisonment by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

Could President Vladimir Putin ever stand trial?

Prof Simpson says never say never.

“No one predicted that Slobodan Milošević would end up in the international criminal tribunal in the Hague in 2000s, no one thought that General Pinochet would end up being subject to extradition proceedings in a British court in 1990, in 1999 no one predicted that Adolf Eichmann would be abducted by the Israelis from Buenos Aires and then stand trial in Jerusalem.

“So it’s a law of unintended consequences, international law and if an indictment is issued, there’s always an outside chance that someone would be brought before court.”