Officials detail Russian war crimes, but still weighing ‘genocide’ label
Experts and officials from the U.S. and Ukraine detailed the war crimes being committed by Russia amid its assault on Ukraine at a hearing of the U.S. Helsinki Commission on May 4, but were less certain about whether those actions constitute genocide.
“The State Department has assessed that members of Russia’s forces have committed war crimes across Ukraine based on a careful review of available evidence and information including open source information, but also classified sources,” said U.S. Ambassador at Large for Global Criminal Justice Beth Van Schaack.
“We saw credible reports of individuals killed execution style with their hands bound, as you mentioned. We saw bodies showing signs of torture, and we heard horrific accounts of sexual violence against women and girls,” she added.
Van Schaack did not weigh in on whether Russia was committing genecide, despite President Biden applying that label during a speech last month. The U.S. has not made an official determination regarding genocide yet.
The State Department has funded and deployed a team of prosecutors, investigators and other professionals to help Ukraine investigate the ongoing crimes, Van Schaack added.
“This team is advising and supporting the office of the prosecutor general as they collect, preserve, and analyze evidence of atrocities with a view towards pursuing criminal accountability,” she said.
Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said her office has seen the most atrocities in the Kyiv region, which the Russian military withdrew from last month to focus on its attacks on the country’s eastern regions.
“We saw numerous civilians shot right on the street near and in their houses, corpses with clear signs of torture. We also discovered a torture chamber with bodies piled on the ground,” she said.
Venediktova noted that her office charged 10 Russian soldiers with war crimes, and was investigating whether the Russian atrocities are genocidal.
“This is just a drop in the ocean of cases that we have,” she said.
Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale University who specializes in Central Eastern Europe and the Holocaust, said he believes Russia’s actions fit into the five categories established by the 1948 Genocide Convention.
“In my view all five of these actions have been carried out — now, just to be clear: In order for genocide to have taken place, we don’t need all five, we only need one. But I think it is the case, and terrifyingly so, that all five are in fact the case in Russian occupied Ukraine,” Snyder said at the hearing.
The five genecidal acts in the 1948 convention are attempting to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, including killing members of the group; imposing measures to prevent births from the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm; creating conditions that could bring the destruction of the group; and transferring children by force to another group.
Snyder said Russia has been forcibly moving Ukrainian children to Russia.
“This one is often overlooked, but I think it is quite important. More than 1 million people, according to Russian data, have been deported from Ukraine to Russia and among that million we’re talking about well over 100,000 children and those children in Russia are being deprived of their nationality,” Snyder said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s belief that Ukraine does not exist is “pre-genocidal”, Synder argued.
“When Mr. Putin says, as he had said repeatedly, that there is no Ukranian state or no Ukranian nation, scholars of genocide would recognize that as pre-genocidal language. That is when you say a group doesn’t exist, what you’re doing is preparing for its destruction,” he said.