Who is a war criminal and who decides?

WASHINGTON. US President Joe Biden bluntly called his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” for the carnage in Ukraine, where hospitals and maternity hospitals were bombed.

But making someone a war criminal is not easy. There are processes and definitions that must be followed to determine who is one and what punishment should be given.

The White House has refrained from granting such status to Mr. Putin, saying it needs to be investigated. But after Mr. Biden used the term on Wednesday, spokeswoman Jen Psaki explained that the president was “speaking from the heart” and reiterated that the process is pending official definition.

But colloquially, “war criminal” has become a generic description for any particularly terrible person.

“Obviously Putin is a war criminal, but the president was speaking from a political perspective,” said David Crane, who spent decades on war crimes and was the chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which tried the former Liberian. President Charles Taylor.

An investigation into Mr. Putin’s actions has already begun. The United States and 44 other countries are working together to shed light on possible crimes after the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution establishing a commission of inquiry. Another investigation was launched by the International Criminal Court, an independent agency based in the Netherlands.

“We are in the early stages of development,” said Mr. Crane, who now leads the Global Accountability Network, which works with the ICC and the UN, among others. Since the day of the invasion, his organization has set up a task force to gather criminal intelligence for possible charges. He believes Mr. Putin could face charges within a year, but there is no statute of limitations.

Here’s how it works.


The description refers to anyone who violates the law of armed conflict, rules that have been adopted by world leaders to govern the behavior of countries in times of war.

These rules have been modified and expanded over the last century, in particular on the basis of the Geneva Conventions adopted after World War II and protocols added later.

The rules aim to protect those who are not fighting and those who can no longer fight, including civilians such as doctors and nurses, wounded combatants and prisoners of war. Treaties and protocols specify who can be targeted and with what weapons. Certain weapons are prohibited, including chemical and biological weapons.


The most serious violations of conventions that amount to war crimes include willful death, destruction and embezzlement without military justification. Other war crimes include attacks on civilians, the use of excessive force and human shields, and the taking of hostages.

CFI also brings charges of crimes against humanity for acts committed as part of systematic attacks against civilians. These include murder, extermination, torture, rape and sexual slavery.

Mr. Putin could be charged and convicted of war crimes under the doctrine of “command responsibility,” which says that commanders can be held accountable if they order or learn about crimes and that they do nothing to counter them.


There are usually four avenues for investigating war crimes, but each has its own limitations. The first is through the International Criminal Court.

The second option is for the UN to hand over the commission of inquiry to a hybrid international war crimes tribunal to indict Mr. Putin.

The third would be the creation of a tribunal for Mr. Putin to be tried by countries or interested parties such as NATO, the European Union and the United States. A good example of this is the Nuremberg military tribunals that tried Nazi leaders after World War II.

Finally, some countries have their own laws to condemn war crimes. Germany, for example, is already investigating Mr. Putin.


Dont clear. Russia does not recognize the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and will not transfer suspects to it. The United States also does not recognize TPI. Mr. Putin can stand trial in a country chosen by the UN or a consortium of interested countries. But it won’t be easy to catch him.


Yes. From the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals after World War II to the most recent special tribunals, leaders have been indicted for their actions in countries such as Bosnia, Cambodia and Rwanda.

Former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic was tried by a UN court in The Hague for his role in the bloody conflict during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, and he died in prison before the court’s decision. His Bosnian Serb ally Radovan Karadzic and Bosnian Serb warlord Ratko Mladic have been charged and are serving life sentences.

Charles Taylor of Liberia has been sentenced to 50 years in prison after being found guilty of ordering atrocities in neighboring Sierra Leone. Former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré, who died last year, became the first former head of state to be convicted by an African court of crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.

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