ICC prosecutor: world expects thorough war crimes probe over Ukraine

Karim Khan says 'time will tell' if the organisation rises to the challenge

International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan and Ukraine's prosecutor general Iryna Venediktova visit the site of a mass grave in Bucha, Ukraine, in April. Reuters
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The international war crimes investigation in Ukraine must be less “impotent and pedestrian” than previous inquiries to ensure senior decision-makers are held to account, its head said on Friday.

Karim Khan, the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, told the BBC that 42 investigators, crime scene experts and lawyers were gathering evidence in the biggest deployment of the organisation’s 20-year history.

But Mr Khan told the BBC the court had been underfunded and had to ask for more money. Some of the staff had been seconded by the Netherlands, he said.

“Time will tell if we manage to rise to the challenge,” said Mr Khan, a Briton. “The victims, those that are in Ukraine and the international community…. expect international actors not to be as impotent or as pedestrian as sometimes may have been the case.

“If we work in that spirit of partnership, we can try and do better than maybe we've done in the past.”

The ICC has secured convictions of defendants from the Central African Republic, Mali and the Democratic Republic of the Congo but higher-profile suspects remain out of its reach, including Libya’s Saif Al Islam Qaddafi and former Sudanese president Omar Al Bashir.

Senior Bosnian Serb leaders were prosecuted in a special mandated court to investigate crimes committed during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990sin one of the biggest victories for international justice of recent decades.

Asked if Russian President Vladimir Putin would be held to account for crimes in Ukraine, Mr Khan said the investigation would probe the actions and decisions taken “whether you’re a foot soldier or whether you're a civilian superior or military commander”.

Experts say the road to prosecution would be difficult as the ICC only prosecutes people who are brought before it in person.

Russia is not a member state and is unlikely to hand over its soldiers or leaders accused of war crimes. It already does not extradite its nationals to face criminal cases abroad.

Under the international laws that govern the conduct of war, civilians or the infrastructure that they rely on for survival cannot be attacked. The sick and wounded must be cared for and prisoners of war must be treated fairly.

The ICC is joined by countries including Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania investigating thousands of potential war crimes.

Mr Khan said his investigation will go back as far as 2013 before the annexation of the Crimea.

A Russian tank commander was jailed for life earlier this week by a court in Ukraine for killing a civilian in the first war crimes trial since the start of the invasion.

Updated: May 27, 2022, 9:49 AM