What are war crimes and how are they prosecuted?

World leaders have vowed to hold President Vladimir V Putin responsible for war crimes as evidence mounts that Russian forces have been killing civilians in Ukraine.

The Kremlin denies the allegations and says the latest images from the Kiev suburb of Bucha, which was liberated from Russian control last week, were staged. But President Biden has called him a war criminal. And President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said that Mr Putin is responsible for the genocide.

If previous prosecutions of war crimes are any indication, the process is tedious and thorough, requiring years of investigation and litigation that are not decided until decades after a conflict has ended.

Here’s what you need to know:

A war crime is an act committed during an armed conflict that violates international humanitarian law designed to protect civilians. The rules of war are codified in various treaties, including the 1949 Geneva Convention and the 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions.

The main body that can hold individuals accountable for war crimes is the International Criminal Court. It was established in 1988 by a treaty known as the Rome Statute, which lists acts punishable as war crimes, including premeditated killings, torture, and premeditated attacks on civilians. Some cases have been brought before special tribunals created by the United Nations.

Prosecutor General of Ukraine Iryna Venediktova said the bodies of 410 people, all apparently civilians, were recovered in the Kyiv region. Human Rights Watch said it had documented cases of rapes, executions and looting of civilian property.

The New York Times has published reports of arbitrary killings, torture and other acts of violence against civilians. The ICC had already launched criminal investigations into possible war crimes at the beginning of March.

“What they did in Bucha, or bombing a hospital or a school, these are prima facie war crimes,” said Kwon O-Gon, an international law expert who served as a judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Like any criminal activity, war crimes are investigated by interviewing witnesses, reviewing photos or videos, and collecting forensic evidence, including ballistics analysis, autopsies, or DNA testing. Prosecutors must demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that individuals knowingly committed the crimes.

Harder to prove is how much a head of state knew and was directly responsible for what happened under his command.

The ICC does not have its own police force or military. The court relies on states handing over their own citizens to the court for prosecution. That’s unlikely to happen to Russia’s senior officials, let alone Mr. Putin.

Mr. Kwon noted that there are no statutes of limitations for war crimes. Evidence or inside information could surface years later, and Putin or others could be handed over to the court for ultimate accountability.

“Even if it takes 10 or 20 years, even if Putin is removed from power, he could be put in the dock,” Mr. Kwon said.

Slobodan Milosevic, known as the “Butcher of the Balkans,” was the first former head of state to be tried for such crimes in 2002. He died in his cell in The Hague as his four-year trial drew to a close before a verdict was reached.

Charles G. Taylor, the former President of Liberia, was sentenced in 2012 to 50 years in prison for atrocities committed in Sierra Leone during the civil war in the 1990s. Laurent Gbagbo, former President of Ivory Coast, was acquitted of crimes against humanity and other charges related to violence following the 2010 presidential election.

The ICC issued an arrest warrant for Libyan leader Colonel Muammar el-Gaddafi in 2011, charging him with crimes against humanity, but he was killed in October before he could be brought to justice.

Former Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir is wanted by the court for genocide and war crimes in the Darfur region, but he has not been extradited by the Sudanese interim government.

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