Why Joe Biden may fight to hold Russia accountable for war crimes

The United States’ continued support for the International Criminal Court over the years will likely complicate any role it plays in investigating atrocities in Ukraine, experts in international law and crimes against humanity have told the Daily. beast. And the potential prosecution of war crimes charges against Russian leaders could push the Biden administration’s commitment to justice to its limits.

“The International Criminal Court and the United States have a rocky relationship,” said Professor Leila Nadya Sadat, one of the world’s leading experts on crimes against humanity and professor of international criminal law at the Faculty of law from the University of Washington. “The United States can still play a material role, but they cannot offer the kind of major financial and logistical support that they could offer with the Yugoslav tribunal, for example.”

The entire civilized world has seen clear evidence of the atrocities committed by Russian forces against unarmed civilians in Ukraine. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced that the US government had confirmed them and President Joe Biden said Vladimir Putin should be prosecuted for them.

But the outrage expressed by the Biden administration in response to the apparent massacre of hundreds of Ukrainian civilians in the town of Bucha, experts and lawmakers told The Daily Beast, can only go so far.

“It would be easier if the United States leaned in and signed the Rome Statute – it would make the position more strongly based on values ​​and the pursuit of justice,” said Fred Abrahams, associate program director at Human Rights Watch. who documented war crimes. for decades, referring to the international treaty that established the International Criminal Court. “It would say, ‘We’re not doing this because of a political goal’ – the goal is to hold perpetrators of war crimes to account.”

The troubled history between the United States and the ICC – the Obama administration has stepped up its assistance in investigating potential war crimes in Syria, while the Trump administration has sanctioned the court’s chief prosecutor – complicates this which should be a simple matter of supporting human rights, Abrahams said.

The International Criminal Court has already begun the work of gathering evidence for possible war crimes charges against Russian military and government leaders — an effort the Biden administration has pledged to support.

“There must be accountability for these war crimes,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Monday, noting that the United States had coordinated efforts with the ICC in the past, although they are not signatories. “This responsibility must be felt at all levels of the Russian system, and the United States will work with the international community to ensure that accountability is applied in a timely manner.”

But international human rights organizations, as well as members of Congress, are beginning to press for the Biden administration to throw its full weight behind investigations that could one day hold Putin accountable.

“I think we can’t ask for accountability if we’ve delegitimized the bodies that would do that responsibility,” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Daily Beast. . Omar has already introduced legislation that would encourage the United States to ratify the Rome Statute and has pledged to push the Biden administration to support its ratification in the coming days.

“It doesn’t bode well with the fact that we are now saying we want the ICC to carry out these investigations,” Omar said.

The calls come amid a flood of images, videos and testimonies from Bucha, a town just outside Kyiv where authorities and journalists observed mass graves of Ukrainians who were allegedly shot dead by the Russian troops. Satellite images shared with The Daily Beast earlier this week show a 45ft-long trench in the town serving as a mass grave.

And while the images are shocking, the role of the United States in pursuing prosecutions may prove limited.

“To sum up, the United States can help provide evidence for specific cases. They can also provide certain types of assistance, such as witness relocation,” said Alex Whiting, visiting professor at Harvard Law School and expert in international criminal prosecution issues. “But he cannot, for example, provide funds or pay prosecutors or investigators to travel to The Hague.”

Linda Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN, called on Tuesday morning for Russia’s suspension from the UN Human Rights Council, a first step to reducing its influence within the organization. international community, but that’s not enough, said Rep. Lee Zeldin (RN.Y.). Then the United States should act to expel Russia from the UN Security Council, Zeldin told the Daily Beast.

“Russia-[and] Putin in particular — deserved this consequence for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine,” Zeldin, who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said, warning that the Biden administration’s actions against Putin must be met. strong and decisive.

Otherwise, Putin will continue, carrying out his massacre perhaps beyond Ukraine.

“If Putin is not held accountable… he is someone who has the ambition to commit other crimes against humanity, potentially in other countries,” Zeldin warned.

The Biden administration’s agreement to help investigate potential crimes in Ukraine is no small feat, especially when the crime scene effectively spans a country the size of Texas.

“Where the United States can play an important role is by helping to organize this information,” Sadat said. “It’s going to take a lot of human resources to process and organize the evidence and be able to use all that information. This is where the United States, which has some expertise in this area, is able to do it. »

“You have to think of what’s happening in Ukraine as an incredibly complex crime scene,” Abrahams echoed. “The bodies that are on the street – we have all seen these photos and videos – they should record the injuries, try to photograph the bodies, document the cause of death. Then you have the witness statements, then you have the ballistics analysis, and then you have the big question: who did this?

“All of this takes time.”

But the timeframe for an investigation leading to a prosecution — even in absentia — could take years, said Dr. Courtney Hillebrecht, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor of international relations and human rights expert.

“These are incredibly difficult tasks under the best of circumstances, and obviously not the best of circumstances,” Hillebrecht said. “Justice will not be served immediately. We are talking about years, not weeks or months.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki admitted as much during a Tuesday briefing, pointing to US economic sanctions as her primary mechanism for punishing short-term Russian war crimes. But that timeline is too slow for many of Biden’s Democratic allies on the Hill, some of whom are now pushing for the administration to expel the Russian ambassador to the United States in response to the Bucha massacre.

“Horrible war crimes are being committed by Russian forces. We need an answer,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Daily Beast. “The United States must expel the Russian ambassador to the United States.”

More broadly, international law experts have expressed concern that the US refusal to fully endorse the ICC risks making its support for a possible Russian war crimes tribunal look like a strategic maneuver against a geopolitical enemy, rather than a humanitarian action that would punish moral obscenity.

“The United States is not a nonpartisan participant in this conflict. They deliver arms to the Ukrainians and are politically clearly aligned, so there is an issue of independence and the perception of independence,” said Abrahams, who testified at the ICC’s war crimes trial. former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević. “In a way, the United States is a side in this conflict – it’s not fighting, but it’s clearly taken sides.”

“It puts them in a bind. It’s a thin line for them to walk.

Despite the long arc of justice on crimes against humanity, international criminal law authorities are cautiously optimistic that the perpetrators of the Bucha massacre and other potential war crimes will be identified and prosecuted, one way or another. ‘another one.

“Assuming the West remains unified, there will be arrests and there will be justice,” Sadat said.

It is unclear, however, whether this justice will be accelerated by a genuine commitment by the United States to uphold international law in Ukraine.

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