President Biden recently accused Russia of committing war crimes and Vladimir Putin a war criminal. Whether these accusations are justified will be determined under international law. The question turns on whether the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces on the 24 February 2022 ordered by Vladimir Putin constituted crimes of aggression.
International Legal Framework
International laws governing hostilities between countries is complex. The United Nations (UN) formed in 1945 declared war obsolete and outlawed war altogether. At the same time, the UN Security Council was established as the executive branch of the UN to address “use of force” between countries.
The UN Charter of 1945, provides countries with limited rights amounting to self-defence to commence hostilities. The Geneva Conventions of 1949 specify that targeting civilians is a war crime.
The UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) established by the UN General Assembly and UN Security Council in 1945 sits as a court to hear and determine civil disputes between countries.
The UN’s International Criminal Court (ICC) established under the Rome Statute of 1998 sits as a court to determine whether acts of countries and individuals constitute genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression.
The ICC deals with member states of the United Nations while the ICJ known also as the World Court can hear war crimes alleged in all countries across the Globe.
On 16 March 2022, the ICJ ordered Russia to halt its invasion of Ukraine. The ICJ could find no evidence to support the Kremlin’s justification for the war that Ukraine was committing acts of genocide against Russian expatriates or Russian speaking Ukrainians.
Has Russia Committed a War Crime?
There is no evidence of acts of genocide by Ukrainians and that Russia acted in self- defence. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the 24 February 2022 violated the UN Charter’s prohibition on aggression and that act could amount to a crime of aggression. The term crime of aggression encompasses the whole of Russia’s entry and continue aggression in Ukraine. Investigations are ongoing.
Will Russian leaders including Vladimir Putin face prosecution?
Russia and Ukraine are not parties to the Rome Statute. Russia and China are founding members of the UN Security Council with Russia having veto power. At this point in time. these factors raise procedural difficulties for the UN Security Council prosecuting Russian leaders including Vladimir Putin for crimes of aggression.