we explain to you the concept of war crime, a recurring accusation in the conflict in Ukraine

“A horrific war crime” : The head of diplomacy of the European Union, Josep Borrell, and the then President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, did not mince their words, Thursday 10 March, the day after the bombing by the Russian army on a children’s hospital in Mariupol, Eastern Ukraine. Since the beginning of the war, President Volodymyr Zelensky, as well as Western leaders such as Boris Johnson or US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have regularly accused Moscow of committing “war crimes” For his part, the Attorney General of the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened an investigation into “war crimes”, imitated by the German prosecutor’s office, March 8.

The accusation is also launched by the other camp. Monday, theThe Russian representative in the Moscow-Kiev talks claimed that Ukraine prevented the evacuation of civilians from cities gripped by the battle, a practice he described as “war crime.” But what exactly is a war crime? To better understand it, franceinfo sheds light on this notion that emerged at the end of World War II.

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Crimes codified by international law

That is the Nuremberg Tribunal, which is responsible for trying Nazi criminals, which for the first time war crimes in 1945. As remembered The diplomatic worldare then considered war crimes: Murder, assault or deportation for forced labour, or for any other purpose, of civilian populations in occupied territories, murder or mistreatment of prisoners of war or persons at sea, execution of hostages, looting of public or private property, willful destruction towns and villages, or destruction not justified by military necessity.” The concept is subsequently incorporated into the Geneva Conventions, signed in 1949. These fundamental texts in international humanitarian law set the limits to be respected in time of war for the protection of civilians, medical personnel, wounded, prisoners of war…

Because even in an armed conflict there are rules that must be respected. “War crimes are enshrined in international law”, explains franceinfo Clémence Bectarte, a lawyer who represents the International Federation of Human Rights and the French coalition at the ICC. Article 8 of the Rome Statute (in pdf), the international treaty that established the International Criminal Court in 1998, lists serious violations. We find, among other things, intentional manslaughter, torture or inhumane treatment (including biological experiments), destruction and appropriation of property, illegal detention, deportation, hostage-taking… many war crimes span more than five pages.

Even though Moscow does not speak of war, but “special military operation”, in Ukraine, the rules of war do apply, as it is an international armed conflict.

Attacks on civilians are war crimes

residential area Bee Chernihivi, school in Zhytomyr or kindergarten on the outskirts of Luhansk… Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, civilian buildings have been badly affected. On Wednesday, March 9, a children’s hospital was bombed in the port city of Mariupol. Changing tables, beds were thrown, everything was blown up. Three people, including a child, were killed, officials said. “What kind of country, Russia, is afraid of hospitals and maternity hospitals and destroys them? Europeans! Ukrainians! People of Mariupol! Today we must unite to condemn this war crime of Russia, which reflects the damage the invaders have done to our country! “ was outraged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a video.

Fact, “any indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population, which must be protected, are war crimes”, says lawyer Clémence Bectarte. †Civilian properties, such as schools or hospitals, should not be attacked or bombed. Besides deliberately starving civilians, not sending aid or forcing the population to flee: these are often war crimes.” she adds. Russia denies targeting civilian infrastructure and accuses Ukrainian troops of using it as human shields. Moscow thus claimed that the bombed Mariupol maternity hospital served as a base for a nationalist battalion (the Russian authorities even claimed that the photos and images of the victims were false).

What about attacking a nuclear power plant, like the Russian military did? in Zaporizhzhya? “Attacking or bombing, by any means, any towns, villages, residences or buildings that are not defended and that are not military targets” is a war crime under the Rome Statute, recalls Clémence Bectarte. The lawyer adds that “attacks like this” has, again, consequences for the “citizens” who live around these sites. Nicolas Goldberg, an energy expert at Colombus Consulting, also considers the attack on a nuclear power station a war crime on franceinfo.

Russian soldiers occupy the site of the former Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Ukraine, March 7, 2022. (EYEPRESS NEWS/AFP)

The fate of prisoners of war in question

On the Ukrainian side, certain actions raise questions. Photos and videos of captured Russian soldiers have been popping up on social media since the start of the conflict. For example, we see them calling their mothers to bring news, often in tears and sometimes with their hands tied. The distribution of these images (which are otherwise difficult to verify) by Ukrainian or pro-Ukrainian internet users may violate the laws of war, especially if the prisoners are recognizable. Respect for physical and mental integrity, right to medical treatment… Under Article 13 of the Geneva Convention, “Prisoners of war must be protected at all times, in particular against any act of violence or intimidation, against insults and public curiosity”

Other images of Russian soldiers captured and forced to repent on the Ukrainian front are making the teeth of international humanitarian law specialists cringe. “The status of prisoner of war is determined by rules, to protect dignity. Prisoners should be treated well”, develops Clémence Bectarte. Otherwise it could be a war crime. “The images of prisoners of war whose faces we see, and therefore are recognizable, are a violation of international humanitarian law, but it is not a war crime”for his part, the professor of public international law at the University of Geneva Marco Sassoli, at AFP, nuances.

Two Russian soldiers captured by Ukrainian soldiers, near Kiev, February 24, 2022. (EMBASSY OF UKRAINE IN ANKARA/HAN / ANADOLU AGENCY)

The investigation and gathering of evidence, essential steps

In order to find out whether the abuses committed meet the definition of a war crime, it is necessary to conduct research and collect evidence. A difficult and painstaking job that can take several months, even several years. This is one of the missions of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is not the only institution carrying it out. Since the arrival of the first Russian tanks on Ukrainian territory, dozens of investigators, ballistics and military experts, independent or members of NGOs, have searched for digital evidence (photos, videos and satellite images) of possible crimes.

For example, Amnesty International has its own scientific laboratory, the Crisis Evidence LabWe have identified two attacks [l’une à Kharkiv, l’autre à Okhtyrka, dans une école, ayant fait trois morts]† for which we can say with certainty that cluster munitions have been used by the Russian army against Ukrainian civilians”, explain to World (paid item) Milena Marin, who co-runs this lab. the Bellingcat . research site (in English) its use in Ukraine is documented. The use of these projectiles, which explode in two stages, is prohibited by the 2008 Oslo Convention, which Moscow has not, however, signed. these bombs carry a large number of mini-bombs. This principle of random explosions makes any aiming or other accurate military fire impossible, and civilians become additional casualties.

“All of these violations of international humanitarian law attributable to Russian troops are serious and may constitute war crimes”, says Amnesty International. Maize in front of Canadian Bill Wiley, who participated in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, “It’s a little too early to jump to conclusions.” “What we are seeing is a terrible situation, but it does not yet show the clear existence of a systematic criminal policy,” he thinks in The world.

A clear understanding of crime against humanity

The ICC investigation is also open to crimes against humanity. How does this concept differ from war crimes? “War crimes are related to a situation of armed conflict. Crimes against humanity are systematic or general crimes against a civilian population that can occur in times of war as well as in peace.”decrypts Clemence Bectarte. “They do not respond to the same logic, but can co-exist. If the Russian state carries out a widespread attack on Ukrainian civilians, it is a crime against humanity”she adds.

There is also the crime of aggression, that is: “the planning, preparation, initiation or execution by any person effectively in a position to control or direct the political or military action of a state, of an act of aggression” which is contrary to the Charter of the United Nations. According to former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and lawyer Philippe Sands, this indictment, which the ICC cannot assess, would be aimed directly at Vladimir Putin and his closest associates. “The Special Court for the Punishment of the Crime of Aggression Against Ukraine May Be Established Soon”they begged The world† While the current procedure before the ICC promises to be long and limited. And that it is very hypothetical to imagine one day an apparition of Vladimir Putin for war crimes.