Can Putin be brought to justice for Russian war crimes in Ukraine?

When an army massacres and rapes indiscriminately, criminal responsibility abounds. Soldiers who commit inhuman acts are, of course, violating international law, as are their commanders. (This week, The Attorney General of Ukraine said the country would try a Russian soldier for war crimes, the first such trial in the conflict that began this winter.)

And above the officers and generals, there is a person at the top of the military who must be held accountable. In Russia’s war against Ukraine, that’s Vladimir Putin. In the last great war on European soil, it was Slobodan Milosevic, president of what was the then fragmented country of Yugoslavia. The story of the former president is encouraging for Putin.

Milosevic’s forces were brutal: in the forests of Srebrenica, them murdered about 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, mostly men and boys. They have set up so-called rape camps, some in motels– where tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslim women were directly violated to wipe out their bloodlines, to literally “cleanse” the population of anyone who was not Serbian. The International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia found that a “hellish orgy of persecution” had been committed by Serbian forces in three concentration camps in northwestern Bosnia, where soldiers beat and act men to death.

The Hague Tribunal, established in 1993 at the start of the war, in the end indicted 161 Serbs and sentenced 91. It charged Milosevic in 1999 with war crimes ranging from torture to genocide.

While the court indicted Milosevic, there was no mechanism to extradite him from Serbia for trial. The prosecutor had to ask Milosevic to voluntarily surrender, a weak gesture. But once the Serbian reformists won the election in 2000, they began to investigate and monitor him and, two years after the former president’s indictment, the government moved Milosevic in the Hague. He died in a prison cell in 2006 while the trial was still ongoing.

No matter how blamed Russian war criminals are, Putin’s extradition, just like with Milosevic, will not happen while in power, and a successor may be reluctant to hand over Putin, unlike Serbian reformists with Milosevic. But what happened with Milosevic, as with the Nuremberg trials after World War II, shows that top leaders can be held accountable.


What do prosecutors do if Putin stays safe behind the Kremlin walls? If international authorities cannot extradite him, they may be able to try him in absentia, how it was done with the former president of Chad Hissène Habré, who had lived safely in Senegal for 17 years. A controversial mechanism, the last stopwatch in absentia was used in 2009, al Special Tribunal for Lebanonwhich was set up at the request of the Lebanese government mainly to try the people who killed former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005.

But it is important to note that arrest warrants alone have consequences. “At the very least,” the Yugoslav court noticed, “arrest warrants made it impossible for Slobodan Milosevic to leave Yugoslavia,” lest it be approved. There was also an order freeze his assets given by the prosecutor to the member states of the United Nations, as well as to Switzerland, which was not a member of the United Nations until 2002.

Criminal Procedure Code of Ukraine He says that a preliminary investigation can be carried out in absentia for illegal immigrants. But there are legal hurdles to overcome in getting to trial, both in person and in absentia, including the staggering evidence of physical evidence, witness accounts, and other documentation that can distinguish a war crime from the horrors of war. Getting an indictment is no easy feat, and conducting a trial without a defendant present is not the same as having, say, Nazi leader Hermann Goering in all his hateful glory in the dock. (The commander of the Luftwaffe he took his own life using a cyanide capsule just a couple of hours before it was scheduled for hanging.)

“Conducting a trial without the accused is like trying to stage Hamlet without Hamlet”, according to the Asser Institute, a The Hague-based organization researching European legal developments. “Hamlet’s story cannot be fully told without the Prince himself on stage. It wouldn’t be the same game. “


Another means of bringing Putin to justice are “red alertsIssued by Interpol, the international consortium of police. Such notices are required from law enforcement agencies around the world to locate and detain a person, pending the issuance of a formal extradition request or handover of the suspect. The notices provide date of birth, eye color and other information about the accused (imagine Putin’s mug on a “Most Wanted” wall in your local post office). And they allow you to send a simultaneous alert to member countries to be on the lookout for the named suspect, making it difficult for them to travel. In any case, the red cards are not international arrest warrants.

A third possibility for justice is “universal jurisdiction”. This complex legal device is used to convict Syrian war criminals in Germany. (The Syrian legal system has almost been canceled.) A German court has already done so condemned a Syrian colonel of crimes against humanity and was sentenced to life in prison in what is hailed as a historic case. He was also used to convict Adolf Eichmann in Israel in 1961, arrest the former Chilean president Augusto Pinochet with a warrant issued by Spain, e extradite John Demjanjuk—A Nazi guard accused of a concentration camp — from the United States to Israel in 1985.

Think of universal jurisdiction as the way to try the perpetrators of crimes so heinous that the world must act regardless of where the crimes were committed. It can act as a “safety net” when the country committing serious crimes such as genocide or terrorism “is unable or unwilling to conduct an effective investigation and trial”, according to Human Rights Watch. “The application of universal jurisdiction reduces the existence of ‘safe havens’ in which a person responsible for serious crimes such as war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide could enjoy impunity.”

But universal jurisdiction is a last resort and rarely used. It too requires cooperation between states extradite a suspect.


War crimes investigators say what is happening in Ukraine is unlike any major war in modern memory. The crimes do not take place in a lawless country, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or in one that is both illegal and under dictatorial control, such as Syria. Since there is a functioning legal system in Ukraine, investigations and prosecutions must be carried out in cooperation with Ukrainians.

Right now, there are hundreds of investigations underway into Russian atrocities in Ukraine, legal and investigative experts told me. Governments, NGOs and those they love have flooded the country with photographers, translators, investigators, lawyers and others who can document Russian atrocities and gather sufficient evidence for the indictments. While war crimes experts hope to see arrests, trials and convictions of Russian war criminals, from authors in the field to Putin himself: they know that justice will take years to deliver, if it ever comes.

However, one fact offers comfort to investigators: While the arrest and trial of Putin and senior Russian officials is a distant possibility right now, war crimes have no statute of limitations. Non-agenary Nazis are still prosecuted decades after World War II The world will likely have to wait for legal justice for Ukraine and it may never come. But with no time limit for their arrest, Putin and other Russian war criminals must always remain on the razor’s edge, fearing the tick of time.

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