What is a war crime? Have Russia or Putin committed one with Ukraine invasion, legal definition and punishment

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Chief prosecutor of the international criminal court has declared Ukraine a ‘crime scene’ after visiting Bucha - here we take a look at what constitutes a war crime

The International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor has said there are “reasonable grounds” to believe war crimes have been committed in Ukraine, after hundreds of bodies were recovered in Bucha.

Images of the bodies of civilians in the streets of Bucha have led to international condemnation of Russia with further accusations that they are committing war crimes.

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On a visit to the town on Wednesday 13 April, Karim Khan QC, declared Ukraine a “crime scene”.

An ICC forensic team is now working “so that we can really make sure we separate truth from fiction”, Mr Khan said.

Both the US President, Joe Biden, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson have said Vladimir Putin should be tried for war crimes.

But what is a war crime, has Putin committed them, and what is illegal in international law?

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What is a war crime?

War crimes are defined by the UN and developed at the Geneva Conventions - which are four treaties and three additional protocols that establish international legal standards for humanitarian treatment in war.

The 1949 Geneva Convention, negotiated after the Second World War, defines the basic rights of wartime prisoners.

It also establishes protections for people who are wounded and for civilians in and around a war zone.

The definition of war crimes itself is long, including details of types of weaponry that are banned, to the targeting of certain buildings, such as hospitals and those dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes.

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AFP via Getty Images

It bans actions that cause deliberate suffering, such as torture, as well as “intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities”.

Has Vladimir Putin committed war crimes?

Ukraine has accused Russia of war crimes over the bombardment of civilian areas in Kharkiv.

Russia has been accused of shelling an orphanage and kindergarten, as well as using a vacuum bomb during its ongoing attacks.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said she had seen reports that Russia had used a vacuum bomb, but could not confirm it was the case.

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“If that were true, it would potentially be a war crime,” she told a press briefing.

AFP via Getty Images

Ukraine’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Yevheniia Filipenko, told the Human Rights Council: “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.”

“I have been closely following recent developments in and around Ukraine with increasing concern,” Mr Khan added. “I remind all sides conducting hostilities on the territory of Ukraine that my office may exercise its jurisdiction and investigate any act of genocide, crime against humanity or war crime committed within Ukraine.”

UK Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab told Sky News: “Those that engage in war crimes will be held to account.”

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Investigators and journalists have found evidence of the deliberate killing of civilians in Bucha, with sightings of mass graves.

US President Joe Biden has called for the Russian president to be tried for war crimes, saying “this guy is brutal”.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the attacks are “yet more evidence” of war crimes.

What is the investigation being launched by the ICC?

Karim Khan, a British lawyer, said that there was grounds to open an investigation based on a previous preliminary investigation on Crimea and the Donbas published last year, and on current events in Ukraine.

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Although Ukraine was not a member of the ICC, it has awarded jurisdiction to the court.

“I have already tasked my team to explore all evidence preservation opportunities,” Khan, a British lawyer, said.

Lithuania’s prime minister, Ingrida Simonyte, told the Washington Post: “What Putin is doing is just a murder and nothing else, and I hope he will be in The Hague.”

David Bosco, an expert on international justice at Indiana University, said: “If the ICC is going to investigate, that means from their perspective they have jurisdiction over any Russians on Ukrainian territory and over any crimes committed on Ukrainian territory.

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“But it’s got to be either war crimes, crime against humanity or genocide.”

Why is Ukraine preparing a case?

The government in Kyiv is preparing a case against Moscow to take to The Hague after Russia’s mounting use of cluster munitions in Ukraine’s cities and the bombardment in Kharkiv.

Ukraine has also taken Russia to the international court of justice (ICJ) for having launched an invasion on the pretext of false claims of genocide perpetrated against the country’s Russian speakers.

AFP via Getty Images

David Bosco said the ICJ submission “is kind of a symbolic move by Ukraine”.

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But, he said: “That’s not going to yield very much because it’s not actually clear that ICJ is going to have jurisdiction.

“And then even if they do, it’s something that would take a long, long time.”

What war crime evidence is being prepared?

Even before Khan’s announcement several groups had started to gather war crimes evidence to use for future trials at the ICC.

Eliot Higgins, the founder of the Bellingcat investigative journalism agency, said the group was working with other organisations to preserve evidence that would be accepted in court.

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“We’ve been working on issues related to accountability using open source evidence for a long time, so we’re very familiar with the needs of stakeholders like the ICC,” he said.

Mr Higgins added: “Our goal would then be to make that data available to any accountability process that wants to use it.

“We aim to have, at a minimum, date and geolocation data, and then work to add other data, such as the type of violation documented, munitions featured in videos, etc.”

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