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U.S. officials, Southern Baptist leaders denounce Russian ‘war crimes’

About 13 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance throughout Ukraine, according to U.N. estimates. Millions have fled their homes, and many of those who stayed have been victimized by Russian troops. IMB photo

WASHINGTON (BP) – President Biden and the U.S. House of Representatives are persuaded Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military have committed war crimes in Ukraine.

If those assessments prove correct, justice requires accountability for the perpetrators, a Southern Baptist ethics leader said.

The war crimes designations by United States officials intensified after photos recently came to light of hundreds of bodies of Ukrainian civilians who apparently had been executed by Russian soldiers prior to the troops’ withdrawal from Bucha, a town outside Kyiv. Though Russia denied the allegations, witnesses also reported torture and rapes by Russian troops, according to news reports.

Brent Leatherwood, acting president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), told Baptist Press, “Far too often, as wars are waged, innocent civilians are caught in the crossfire. This week, the world has been confronted with appalling images of the result of such a situation. More alarmingly, many of the photos suggest these civilians were purposefully targeted.

“If such an intentional violation of humanitarian laws occurred, it is the very definition of a war crime,” Leatherwood said in written comments. “The commanders, generals and leaders who called for such actions to be taken need to be held accountable. Justice demands it.”

While the gruesome images have increased calls for Putin and his troops to be prosecuted, the Russian president already had committed war crimes, Georgetown University Professor Paul Miller said.

Miller – a fellow with the ERLC’s Research Institute and a member of a Southern Baptist church in Northern Virginia – called “the reports of atrocities at Bucha sadly all too plausible. In the annals of war – especially including Russian military history – such things are horribly common.”

However, he finds “it odd that when we talk about war crimes, there is so much attention to a few individual acts of barbarism rather than to the overwhelmingly larger fact of the war itself,” Miller told BP in an email interview. “We should remember that ‘aggression’ is a war crime under international law. … In other words, of course Putin is a war criminal: He ordered the invasion of a sovereign state.”

Miller is professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and formerly a member of the White House National Security Council.

Biden had already labeled Putin a war criminal before the world saw the images from Bucha, and he reiterated that declaration April 4. “[H]e is a war criminal,” Biden told reporters. “But we have to gather the information, … and we have to get all the detail” so there can be a trial.

Two days later, the White House announced another round of economic sanctions against Russia, including against Putin’s adult children.

The United States also worked with allies to produce a vote Thursday (April 7) in the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly that resulted in suspending Russia from the Human Rights Council.

The House voted 418-7 April 6 for the Ukraine Invasion War Crimes Deterrence and Accountability Act, which directs the president to report to Congress on his administration’s attempts to “collect, analyze, and preserve evidence and information related to war crimes” and other atrocities committed by Russia during its invasion of Ukraine. The bill also said it is the House’s sense that Russia’s military has committed a variety of war crimes.

In the other chamber, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said April 5 he plans to introduce a bill soon to hold war criminals accountable, including a prohibition on their entry into the United States.

In general and not just in this context, Miller said the appropriate U.S. response to war crimes would be:

  • “Raise awareness. It’s immoral to deliberately turn a blind eye to injustice.
  • “Prosecute any war crimes involving U.S. personnel in U.S. courts and under U.S. law.
  • “Defeat war criminals on the battlefield. It is weird to me to talk about justice or accountability for war criminals outside the context of the war in which they are committing their crimes. The first and most important step in bringing any justice to this situation is to help Ukraine win the war.
  • “After the war, cooperate with any International Criminal Court [ICC] investigations and prosecutions that do not conflict with U.S. interests or sovereignty. We are not a signatory to the ICC treaty and have no obligation to recognize its authority, but there is no particular reason to oppose it either, unless a specific case otherwise complicates our efforts to pursue our interests.”

The idea of war crimes especially materialized more than 120 years ago to ban specific methods of warfare, according to the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. The four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their subsequent protocols in 1977 primarily addressed the protection of non-participants in war, the U.N. office reported. All U.N. members have ratified the 1949 Geneva Conventions, but many regulations in other international law treaties are considered binding on all countries even if they have not ratified those agreements, according to the U.N. office.

The definition of war crimes encompasses a myriad of serious violations of the 1949 Geneva Conventions or other customary laws, according to the 1998 Rome Statue that established the ICC, which has jurisdiction over such offenses. Unlike genocide or crimes against humanity, war crimes must occur in the context of armed conflict, whether international or non-international.

Acts prohibited under the ICC’s guidance regarding war crimes include: “[M]urder; mutilation, cruel treatment and torture; taking of hostages; intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population; intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historical monuments or hospitals; pillaging; rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy or any other form of sexual violence; conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 years into armed forces or groups or using them to participate actively in hostilities.”

The ICC’s success in bringing war criminals to justice can take years and is far from guaranteed. The trial of a reputed leader of the Sudanese military’s atrocities nearly 20 years ago against civilians in the Darfur region finally began April 5 at The Hague, Netherlands.

Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-Al-Rahmann pleaded not guilty to 31 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, according to the Associated Press. Prosecutors say he was a senior militia commander during a campaign against rebels that resulted in the deaths of as many as 300,000 people and the displacement of 2.7 million others in Darfur, AP reported.

Though the ICC announced in March it was opening an investigation into war crimes in Ukraine, Miller is convinced the court will be unable to bring a Russian leader to justice.

“[T]here is a zero percent chance that any Russian official will stand trial at the International Criminal Court for war crimes, ever,” he told BP. “The ICC only has as many teeth as the world’s great powers are willing to give it, and against Russia, its bite will be all gum and no tooth.”

He also has “mixed feelings” about Biden declaring Putin is a war criminal.

“It is likely that we will have to live with Putin for years to come, sadly,” Miller said. “Calling him a war criminal, however accurate, locks us into permanent enmity and forecloses any kind of return to normalcy, ever, so long as Putin remains in power. That may be inevitable at this point – and I understand many people believe we should never accept ‘normalcy’ with war criminals – but, honestly, we do that all the time across much of the developing world.

“Making an exception in Putin’s case and making ‘him’ the war criminal we can’t tolerate seems foolish when he can hold the free world hostage to nuclear blackmail or with an energy embargo. Treating Putin with permanent, irreversible enmity means living in a very different kind of world – it amounts to severing all diplomatic ties and treating him like an enemy combatant in a shooting war, before the shooting, like an undeclared World War III. We should not go down that road unless absolutely, inexorably forced to it.”

In addition to alleged war crimes, Russia’s unprovoked military invasion, which began Feb. 24, has resulted in an overwhelming refugee crisis. More than 10.5 million people – nearly a quarter of Ukraine’s population –0. have been displaced either within the country or abroad as refugees, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported March 31. About 13 million people are estimated to be in urgent need of humanitarian assistance throughout Ukraine, according to the UNHCR.