International Criminal Court (ICC) chief prosecutor Karim AA Khan announced Feb. 28 that he will open an investigation into the situation in Ukraine. In light of Ukraine’s acceptance of the ICC’s jurisdiction on an open-ended basis to address alleged crimes committed on its territory since 2014, Khan said the ICC may proceed despite Ukraine not being a state party to the Rome Statute. On reviewing the preliminary examination by the Office of the Prosecutor, Khan affirmed that there is a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s Ambassador to the UN Yevheniia Filipenko that same day called for an inquiry into possible war crimes perpetrated by Russia as its invasion of the country unfolds. Filipenko said: “Russian forces attempt to sow panic among the population by specifically targeting kindergartens and orphanages, hospitals and mobile medical aid brigades, thus committing acts that may amount to war crimes.”
Emergency meeting of Human Rights Council
The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) also voted that day to hold an emergency debate regarding Russia’s military actions. Filipenko informed the UNHRC that, according to the Ukrainian Ministry of Health, 352 Ukrainians have lost their lives during the invasion. This figure includes 16 children, while an additional 160 children have been injured.
According to Reuters, Ukraine will present a draft resolution during the UNHRC debate. If the resolution is accepted, “a commission of three independent experts would investigate all alleged violations of international law in Crimea and the Donetsk and Luhansk regions since 2014 and in other areas of Ukraine since Russia’s invasion last week.”
War crimes evidence mounts
The UN defines war crimes according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The statute’s definition includes “intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities.”
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported “at least 240 civilian casualties, including at least 64 dead” as of Feb. 26. Additionally, infrastructure damage has forced the internal displacement of at least 160,000 people and caused at least 116,000 people to flee across an international border. The OCHA estimates that Russia’s invasion could generate 5 million refugees in the “worst-case scenario.” Several specific attacks have raised allegations of warm crimes.
In one instance, Amnesty International accused Russian forces of using cluster munitions during a Feb. 25 attack on a pre-school in Okhtyrka, a northeastern Ukrainian city. Three civilians died in the attack, including one child. Another child was wounded. Secretary-general of Amnesty International Agnès Callamard said: “There is no possible justification for dropping cluster munitions in populated areas, let alone near a school.” Sha added that the attack “shows flagrant disregard for civilian life.”
Nearly 100 nations joined a 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, prohibiting their use. However, Ukraine and Russia have not joined the treaty. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, cluster munitions explode in the air, scattering “large numbers of explosive submunitions.” The submunitions cannot be guided to a specific target and therefore “pose a significant danger to civilians.”
In another instance, Oleh Synehubov, head of the Kharkiv Regional State Administration, called attacks on residential areas of Kharkiv a “war crime” in a Feb. 28 Telegram message. He noted that Kharkiv does not house any “critical infrastructure” that may jusitfy a strategic attack. At the time of his message, Synehubov reported 11 dead civilians and dozens wounded in the city.