Ukraine and its Western allies opened a new center Monday that will investigate Russia’s leaders for the crime of aggression, following its 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
The new facility in The Hague, Netherlands – known as the International Centre for the Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression Against Ukraine (ICPA) – will gather evidence on the Russian leadership’s decision to invade the country in February of last year. The center is based in the headquarters of Eurojust, the European Union’s agency for criminal justice cooperation.
At a press conference to mark the opening of the center, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Andriy Kostin, said it was a vital step toward international justice.
“Today, we gather here on the occasion of a truly historic moment, I would say an epoch-defining moment when the civilized world not only voices but also shows by concrete actions that accountability is what matters the most,” Kostin said.
Prosecutors from Ukraine, the European Union and the United States will build the criminal case against Russia.
“The U.S. Department of Justice is proud to stand alongside our European partners and be among the first to participate in the International Centre for the Prosecution of the Crime of Aggression Against Ukraine,” U.S. Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite said in a statement Monday.
“The Justice Department’s newly appointed U.S. special prosecutor for the crime of aggression, Jessica Kim, will represent the United States at the ICPA and she will have unfettered access to the substantial body of expertise and resources that the department has amassed in response to Russia’s unlawful war of aggression against Ukraine,” he added.
The ICPA does not have the ability to bring Russia’s leaders to trial.
“This is not a tribunal. It has no power to investigate individuals or to prosecute or to have trials or anything like that,” explained Philippe Sands, a professor of law at University College London and an expert on international justice, in an interview with VOA.
“It's a sort of prerequisite. It's going to gather the evidence in relation to the small number of individuals who have participated in the decision to start the war and to continue the war from the top down,” Sands added.
The center will work alongside the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is already investigating war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, the ICC is not investigating Russia for the crime of aggression.
“The International Criminal Court has jurisdiction over war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. It does not have jurisdiction for the crime of aggression for various technical, legal and political reasons,” Sands said.
The crime of aggression is traced back to the Nuremberg trials at the end of World War II and the prosecution on Nazi leaders. It was then called crimes against peace.
No court currently exists with the jurisdiction to hear such a case. But it’s vital that those who launched the invasion of Ukraine, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, are prosecuted for the crime of aggression, says Sands.
“Why? Because it’s the only crime that's a leadership crime, it’s the only one where you go straight to the top table. And secondly, because it’s the crime, which if you like, begets or the others: if there hadn’t been a war, we wouldn’t be talking about war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
Putin on trial?
Establishing a tribunal to one day prosecute Russia’s leaders will likely face numerous challenges.
“You will see that there will be concerns amongst many countries - India, China - they will have concerns about what's going on here. And there is plainly some advocacy to be done in relation to those countries and many countries in the global south. What that translates into is significant political discussions and obstacles ahead,” Sands said.
“It’s far from sure if and when a tribunal will be created. But the bottom line is at the end of the day, it could be a European tribunal or regional tribunal rather than a global tribunal. And that might be the way to get out of this political issue.”
Ukraine says it has documented more than 400,000 crimes related to Russia’s invasion: the targeted killing of civilians; sexual violence; torture; and the forcible displacement of civilians, including children.
Moscow denies committing war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression.