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Russia’s bombardment of civilians in Ukraine amounts to a “massive war crime”, the European Union said on Monday as some members said they were open to alleged atrocities being prosecuted by a special tribunal.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said Russia’s attacks on the port of Mariupol were destroying the city, indiscriminately killing its residents and were “completely out of any kind of law”.
Germany also joined the UK and US in describing Russia’s onslaught as a war crime after reports of civilians being deliberately targeted during the weeks-long invasion and the battle for control of Mariupol.
Ukraine and its allies say Russian strikes have destroyed a maternity hospital in Mariupol as well as an art school and a theatre that had been marked as a shelter for civilians.
Russian President Vladimir Putin “deserves the strongest condemnation of the civilised world,” said Mr Borrell as the EU’s 27 foreign ministers met in Brussels, with many joining him in denouncing attacks on civilians.
“This is a war crime, a massive war crime, what’s happening in Mariupol,” said Mr Borrell. “Using their military capacities against civilians is not a war, it is a massive destruction of the country.”
At least three ministers indicated support for the idea, floated by statesmen including the UK’s former prime minister Gordon Brown, of creating a special tribunal similar to the Nuremberg court which prosecuted Nazi war crimes.
The International Criminal Court is investigating reports of atrocities in Ukraine which the UN has also said could amount to war crimes, but Russia withdrew its signature from the treaty governing the court in 2016.
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s Foreign Minister, said this would make it difficult for the ICC to secure a conviction, potentially strengthening the case for a special tribunal.
“We’re open to that,” he said. “We are very open to whatever mechanisms will work in terms of securing accountability for the decisions that are currently taking place in Ukraine.”
Slovakian delegate Ivan Korcok similarly said he was ready to discuss the idea, while Lithuania’s Gabrielius Landsbergis said a tribunal “could be unavoidable” for what he said should be a wider reckoning with Mr Putin’s Russia.
“We have to have a systematic approach to the ideology, to Putinism itself, and it has to be assessed, and probably a tribunal could be a place to do it,” he said.
Germany’s Annalena Baerbock did not address the idea of a tribunal, but said one court or another would have to decide on what she described as “clear and unambiguous war crimes” unfolding in Ukraine.
Ukraine on Monday rejected a Russian demand to surrender Mariupol, after Moscow promised to allow civilians trapped in the bombardment without water, heat or medicine to escape if its defenders laid down their arms.
Mariupol was not on a list of eight humanitarian corridors where Ukraine said agreement had been reached for people to get out.
As the fighting continues into a fourth week, some EU countries are calling for tougher sanctions to weaken the Russian war effort and punish Mr Putin for launching the invasion.
Mr Landsbergis cautioned against what he said was a mood in European meetings that politicians would “like to sit down and take a breath”.
“Europe cannot give an impression of fatigue when the war in Ukraine has not ended,” he said. “I think it’s a very bad message to those who are actually fighting in Ukraine.”
Four rounds of sanctions have already curbed Russia’s access to financial markets, blocked trade in key industries, banned Russian flights from much of Europe’s airspace and targeted prominent individuals including Mr Putin.
In parallel to these sanctions, many of Ukraine’s closest neighbours are supporting its demand for fast-track admission to the EU.
Senior EU leaders have played down the idea of accelerating a process which typically takes a decade or more and requires negotiations in a swathe of policy areas from the environment to the rule of law.
But Mr Korcok said Slovakia expects the European Commission to speed up the process of submitting a formal opinion on Ukraine’s application.
“They’re defending their territory, but they’re fighting for us,” he said.