What is a war crime? Russia investigated over actions in Ukraine

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·3-min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
A view of the square outside the damaged local city hall of Kharkiv on March 1, 2022, destroyed as a result of Russian troop shelling. - The central square of Ukraine's second city, Kharkiv, was shelled by advancing Russian forces who hit the building of the local administration, regional governor Oleg Sinegubov said. Kharkiv, a largely Russian-speaking city near the Russian border, has a population of around 1.4 million. (Photo by Sergey BOBOK / AFP) (Photo by SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images)
The square outside the damaged local city hall of Kharkiv. (Getty)

The international community is investigating whether Russia has committed war crimes in Ukraine after reports of cluster bombs used against civilians and attacks on kindergartens.

The US confirmed it was looking closely into the allegations and engaging with partners around the world on the issue.

On Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said there have been "a range of reports that are horrifying about barbaric tactics, whether it's cluster bombs or other tactics that we've seen that could be classified as a war crime”.

Amnesty International said Russia’s invasion had included indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas and strikes on protected objects such as hospitals, killing at least six civilians.

Ukraine and its allies on Monday called for a United Nations inquiry into possible war crimes committed by Russia.

The UN Human Rights Council voted to accept Ukraine's request to hold an urgent debate on Thursday.

A Ukrainian draft resolution will be considered and if adopted, a commission of three independent experts would investigate all alleged violations of international law.

On Monday, the office of the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) said it would seek court approval to open an investigation into alleged war crimes in Ukraine.

Russia's ambassador Gennady Gatilov said it had launched "special operations to stop the tragedy" in Ukraine's breakaway Donbass region, and that Russia's forces were not firing on civilian targets in Ukraine.

Read more: Ukraine-Russia war: Which countries have the most nuclear weapons?

KYIV, UKRAINE - MARCH 01: A girl draws at a table set up in the bomb shelter at the Okhmadet Children's Hospital on March 01, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Russian forces continued their advance on the Ukrainian capital as the country’s invasion of its western neighbour entered its sixth day.  Intense battles are also being waged over Ukraine’s other major cities. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
A bomb shelter at the Okhmadet Children's Hospital. (Getty)

What constitutes a war crime?

The UN defines war crimes as part of the Geneva Conventions.

In total, four treaties and three protocols make up the Geneva Conventions which establish legal standards around the world for humanitarian treatment during wars.

It lays out rights for war prisoners, the wounded and civilians caught up in war zones, including prohibiting the targeting of particular buildings like hospitals and banning the use of certain weaponry.

The Geneva Conventions, agreed in 1949 in the aftermath of the Second World War, bans the intentional targeting of civilians and the use of torture.

The full definition of war crimes can be found here.

The most severe crimes are called grave breaches and are considered war crimes by legal definition.

The eight 'grave breaches' of the Geneva Conventions are:

  • wilful killing;

  • torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments;

  • 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;

  • compelling a prisoner of war or a civilian to serve in the forces of a hostile power;

  • wilfully depriving a prisoner of war or a civilian of the rights of fair and regular trial;

  • unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement of a civilian;

  • taking civilians as hostages.

Read more: Boris Johnson confronted by distraught Ukrainian woman - 'We have nowhere to run'

A view of the car which was destroyed by recent shelling on a check-point in the city of Brovary outside Kyiv on March 1, 2022. - Russian troops will carry out an attack on the infrastructure of Ukraine's security services in Kyiv and urged residents living nearby to leave, the defence ministry said on March 1, 2022. (Photo by Genya SAVILOV / AFP) (Photo by GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images)
A car destroyed by recent shelling on a check-point in the city of Brovary outside Kyiv. (Getty)
TOPSHOT - Emergencies personnel carry the body out of the damaged local city hall of Kharkiv on March 1, 2022, destroyed as a result of Russian troop shelling. - The central square of Ukraine's second city, Kharkiv, was shelled by advancing Russian forces who hit the building of the local administration, regional governor Oleg Sinegubov said. Kharkiv, a largely Russian-speaking city near the Russian border, has a population of around 1.4 million. (Photo by Sergey BOBOK / AFP) (Photo by SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images)
Emergencies personnel carry the body out of the damaged local city hall of Kharkiv. (Getty)

What is the punishment for a war crime?

The ICC was established in 2002 to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and the crime of aggression when member states are unwilling or unable to do so themselves.

It can prosecute crimes committed by nationals of member states or on the territory of member states by other actors.

The ICC has convicted five men for war crimes and crimes against humanity, all African militia leaders from DR Congo, Mali and Uganda. Sentences range from nine to 30 years in prison.

The maximum possible sentence is life imprisonment.

Although the court is supported by many UN members and the European Union, other major powers like the US, China, Russia and Israel are not members and argue it could be used for politically motivated prosecutions.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting