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Leader comment: Putin, the war criminal

08 April 2022

NEWSPAPERS in the UK do not show images of dead people, by and large. Photographers in the field are not so squeamish, however. Early agency photos from the town of Bucha, north of Kyiv, this week, after the Russian withdrawal, carried the standard warning: “EDITORS NOTE: image depicts death”. By Tuesday, however, the warning was being left off: there were just too many such images. One body left lying in the street clearly has his hands tied behind his back, suggesting a form of execution. Most appear to be wearing civilian clothes; some are in domestic settings. The wanton destruction caused by a retreating army is common, but shocking, none the less.

The concept of a war crime is a relatively new one, developed in the 20th century and now administered by the International Criminal Court (ICC). It is hard to decide whether the existence of such a court is a sign of the sophistication of humankind or its exact opposite. There is no doubt, however, that the court will have to deal with the bodies in Bucha, painstakingly tracking the Russian army units who occupied the town. The Rome statute that establishes the authority of the ICC is clear enough. Included in its definition of a war crime is: “intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities” (Article 8.b.i).

The execution of individual civilians is arguably the slightest matter for the ICC, however. The whole of Article 8 makes it clear that war crimes were committed from the first day of the Russian action against Ukraine. The definition includes, for example, “wilful killing”, “wilfully causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or health”, “extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly”, and “intentionally using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare by depriving them of objects indispensable to their survival, including wilfully impeding relief supplies as provided for under the Geneva Conventions”. Simply by prosecuting the war, President Putin faces a host of criminal charges.

The ICC’s articles make a distinction between combatants and non-combatants. Nowhere is the line more blurred than in Ukraine, where the majority of the country’s defenders are armed civilians, forced into combat by the threat of invasion. The death and injury of Ukraine’s fighting men and women should also be placed at President Putin’s feet, therefore — as should the death and injury of the Russian servicemen and -women, many of whom found themselves not defending their country or liberating an oppressed people, as they had been told, but ordered to assault a hostile population with inadequate resources. Russians, too, are victims of President Putin’s culpability. Every death in the Ukraine war is a crime.

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