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One year on: The state of efforts to protect civilians and secure justice in Ukraine

A woman mourns as she looks at destroyed residential building as a result of a missile strike 4 days ago in Ukrainian city of Dnipro on January 17, 2023. More than 40 victims, including children were killed when Russian missile striked residential building on Saturday. UPI/Alamy Live News

In the year since the start of the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine we have seen unimaginable harm inflicted on civilians across Ukraine. Over 7,000 civilians have been killed and approximately 14 million have fled their homes, according to the United Nations. In recent months, the Ukrainian military has made significant advances, and with Russia signaling little appetite for withdrawing, the conflict may be entering a new phase. At this solemn anniversary of the beginning of the invasion, where are the greatest risks facing civilians, and what are the prospects for justice?

As the Simon-Skjodt Center has previously articulated, there is a reasonable basis to believe that Russian forces are committing war crimes and crimes against humanity against Ukrainian civilians. Publicly available information warrants investigation into the potential commission of genocide. Concerns about genocide are raised by dangerous rhetoric against Ukrainians from Russian President Vladimir Putin, forcible deportations of Ukrainian civilians to Russia—including the deportation of thousands of children—and other crimes including killings and sexual violence. The situation requires constant attention given the extent of the crimes and the continuing evolution of the military conflict. 

At the one-year mark in this war, we are seeing horrific suffering and worrisome scenarios in which civilians could face even greater harm. We’re also seeing a commitment, both within Ukraine and internationally, to pursuing accountability for mass atrocity crimes committed during this conflict.  

Scenarios of mass atrocity escalation

The Simon-Skjodt Center convened a discussion in late 2022 to forecast scenarios of mass atrocity escalation in Ukraine. The discussion was designed to help identify response options that could mitigate those emerging atrocity risks. Even in a case like Ukraine, where mass atrocities are already occurring, additional options may be available to help protect vulnerable populations. Though the current threats facing civilians are horrific, policy makers should consider what may lie ahead in coming months in order to formulate mitigation strategies in advance. Experts at that discussion relayed the following concerns: 

  • Russia may increase targeting of civilian population centers as Ukraine makes military advances; 

  • Predation and conflict-related sexual violence may increase as new, untrained Russian troops exert control over occupied territory, and as those troops may face limited internal accountability;

  • Russia may increase its deliberate attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure in order to worsen the humanitarian crisis in the country.

Various experts expressed deep concern that the conflict would escalate in coming months as the Russian government would renew offensives in late winter and early spring of 2023.

Accountability for mass atrocities

Ukraine has become a crime scene. While the full scale of the violations is not yet known, numerous crimes have already been documented. These include summary executions, torture, and sexual violence perpetrated by the Russian military, all of which may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. Conduct that may constitute additional war crimes include attacks on civilians, on sites of cultural heritage, hospitals, schools; and the repeated use of cluster munitions. The road to justice will likely be long, and there will be challenges regarding holding high-level perpetrators to account, analyzing and prioritizing the vast amounts of evidence collected so far, and ensuring that accountability efforts are coordinated.

In the past year, there has been significant support for accountability mechanisms that may bring perpetrators of these crimes to justice, including the following: 

Local prosecutions

Unlike many other situations of unfolding mass atrocity, local prosecutions are possible—and unfolding—in Ukraine today. The Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office has already opened investigations into close to 36,000 cases and counting, and has established 28 mobile investigative groups including prosecutors, investigators, police officers, and experts working in parallel in different locations.These efforts are being supported by teams of national and international investigators, analysts, and legal advisors. Ukrainian prosecutors are receiving support from the United States, United Kingdom, and European Union, among others. 

Prosecutions beyond Ukraine

Beyond the Ukrainian justice system, at least twelve countries have opened investigations into atrocities committed during the war: Germany, Spain, Sweden, France, Lithuania, Canada, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia, the United States, and the United Kingdom. In January 2023, against the backdrop of growing evidence of crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine, President Biden signed into law the bipartisan Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act, which expanded the scope of individuals subject to prosecution for war crimes. The Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act enables the Department of Justice to prosecute alleged war criminals who are found in the United States, regardless of the location of the crime and the nationality of the perpetrator or the victim—something that had not been possible previously.

International Mechanisms

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has been examining evidence of war crimes in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014; in March 2022, the ICC Prosecutor opened an investigation into allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and/or genocide in Ukraine from November 21, 2013, onwards. The crimes in Ukraine sparked what has been rare bipartisan US support for the Court. Also in March 2022, the UN Human Rights Council established the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine with a mandate that includes the investigation of violations of international law; the collection, analysis and preservation of evidence of those violations; and cooperation “with judicial and other entities, as appropriate.”

A tribunal for the crime of aggression

Momentum is increasing behind the idea of a tribunal for the crime of aggression. Although the crime of aggression is within the ICC’s jurisdiction, the Court cannot act on it in this case because neither Russia nor Ukraine are signatories to the Rome Statute. In February 2022, international lawyer Philippe Sands and former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown were among the first to publicly call for a tribunal for the crime of aggression. In April, Ukraine expressed its support. More recently, leaders of the EU and of France and Germany expressed support for addressing the crime of aggression. Looking ahead, the UN General Assembly could establish an international ad hoc tribunal or the Ukrainian government could establish a “hybrid” court that includes international judges and foreign funding.

For more information regarding mass atrocities in Ukraine, see the Simon-Skjodt Center’s country page.