45 nations pledge to coordinate evidence of war crimes in Ukraine

Russia has repeatedly denied involvement in war crimes and deliberately targeting civilians since it invaded Ukraine in February.

 A worker from the war crimes prosecutor's office takes in the damage from overnight shelling that landed on a building of Kharkiv's Housing and Communal College as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues in Kharkiv, Ukraine, June 21, 2022.  (photo credit: Leah Mills/Reuters)
A worker from the war crimes prosecutor's office takes in the damage from overnight shelling that landed on a building of Kharkiv's Housing and Communal College as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues in Kharkiv, Ukraine, June 21, 2022.
(photo credit: Leah Mills/Reuters)

The United States and more than 40 other countries agreed on Thursday to coordinate investigations into suspected war crimes in Ukraine, shortly after what Kyiv said was a Russian missile strike that killed civilians far from front lines.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told the international conference that Russian missiles had struck two community centers in the west of Ukraine, killing 20 people, including three children, and wounding many more.

"As this meeting takes place, Russian forces continue to commit atrocities in Ukraine with harrowing intensity,"

US envoy Uzra Zeya

Russia has repeatedly denied involvement in war crimes and deliberately targeting civilians since it invaded Ukraine in February. It says it launched a "special military operation" to protect Russian speakers and root out dangerous nationalists. Ukraine says Moscow is waging an unprovoked war of conquest.

"Today in the morning, Russian missiles hit our city of Vinnytsia, an ordinary, peaceful city. Cruise missiles hit two community facilities, houses were destroyed, a medical center was destroyed, cars and trams were (set) on fire," Zelensky said by video link. "This is the act of Russian terror."

International Criminal Court to discuss investigations into alleged war crimes, ICC Prosecutor Karim A. A. Khan QC speaks as Ukraine's top prosecutor Iryna Venediktova and Eurojust President Ladislav Hamran were present, he Hague, Netherlands May 31, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/EVA PLEVIER)International Criminal Court to discuss investigations into alleged war crimes, ICC Prosecutor Karim A. A. Khan QC speaks as Ukraine's top prosecutor Iryna Venediktova and Eurojust President Ladislav Hamran were present, he Hague, Netherlands May 31, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/EVA PLEVIER)

The Russian defense ministry did not immediately comment on the reports from Vinnytsia.

On Thursday, 45 countries at the conference in The Hague - headquarters of the International Criminal Court (ICC) - signed a political declaration to work together on investigations into war crimes in Ukraine.

Those countries included European Union states as well as Britain, the United States, Canada, Mexico and Australia.

They also pledged 20 million euros ($20 million) to assist the ICC, as well as the prosecutor general's office in Ukraine and United Nations support efforts.

With some 23,000 war crimes investigations now open and different countries heading teams, evidence needs to be credible and organized, officials said.

Separately, Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra said the Netherlands would also consider setting up a special international Ukraine war crimes tribunal, in part because neither Ukraine nor Russia are members of the ICC.

"We have to fill a vacuum and the ICC here doesn't have the jurisdictions so I can imagine we do look into coming up with such a tribunal...We will take a look into this," he said.

 

Impunity 

Russian forces have bombed Ukrainian cities to ruins and left behind bodies in the streets of towns and villages they occupied since invading in February. Ukraine says tens of thousands of civilians have died. Moscow denies responsibility.

There have also been some reports of Ukrainians mistreating Russian prisoners, though the vast majority of accusations documented by bodies such as the United Nations are of alleged atrocities committed by Russian invaders and their proxies.

"As this meeting takes place, Russian forces continue to commit atrocities in Ukraine with harrowing intensity," said US envoy Uzra Zeya, who attended the meeting.

"With each day the war crimes mount: rape, torture, extrajudicial executions, disappearances, forced deportations, attacks on schools, hospitals, playgrounds, apartment buildings, grain silos, water and gas facilities."

The European Union's justice commissioner, Didier Reynders, noted that war crimes and genocide suspects were still at large from conflicts dating back decades in places such as Rwanda, Darfur, Syria, Congo and the Balkans.

"Impunity is a massive problem," Hoekstra told a news conference, referring to war crimes in Ukraine and around the world.

ICC statements

ICC chief Prosecutor Karim Khan said there were reasons for hope because more than 40 states were now seeking action on Ukraine through the court. The ICC has sent the largest field team in its 20-year history to investigate in Ukraine.

"At a time like this, the law cannot be a spectator. The law cannot recline in comfort in The Hague," he said.

Russia withdrew its backing from the ICC in 2016 after the court referred to Moscow's 2014 seizure and annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine as an armed conflict.

Since the Feb. 24 invasion, Ukrainian authorities have convicted two Russian soldiers of war crimes.

Russia's separatist proxies have held their own trials, including passing death sentences on two British fighters and a Moroccan in what Western countries consider sham proceedings.