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What are war crimes, and could Russia be committing them in Ukraine?

A prosecutor for the International Criminal Court said Wednesday that he would be opening an investigation into possible war crimes committed in Ukraine after 39 of the organization’s members called for an investigation.

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Karim Khan tweeted that the investigation into the Russian invasion of the country would move forward as reports of civilian deaths mount.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described Russia’s attack on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, as a “war crime,” as Russian forces continue heavy shelling there and in several regions in the country.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson echoed Zelenskyy’s remarks.

“What we have seen already from (Russian President) Vladimir Putin’s regime in the use of the munitions that they have already been dropping on innocent civilians ... in my view, (it) already fully qualifies as a war crime,” Johnson told the U.K. Parliament Wednesday.

What constitutes a war crime and who brings those criminals to justice? Here is what we know about war crimes and what the International Criminal Court’s role is in finding justice.

What is a war crime?

The definition of a war crime was established by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and is based on the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

War crimes are violations of international humanitarian law. A war crime must take place in the context of an armed conflict.

War crimes are different from genocide or crimes against humanity.

There are specific standards for what constitutes a war crime.

“The laws of war do not always protect civilians from death,” Mark Kersten of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, told The Washington Post. “Not every civilian death is necessarily illegal.”

The list of what is considered a war crime is long, but it also contains a lot of gray areas. Below are some acts considered a war crime. See all the acts considered war crimes here.

· Willful killing.

· Torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments.

· Willfully causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or health.

· Extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly.

· Intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities.

· Intentionally directing attacks against civilian objects, that is, objects which are not military objectives.

· Attacking or bombarding, by whatever means, towns, villages, dwellings or buildings which are undefended, and which are not military objectives.

Russia has been accused of using “vacuum bombs.” If true, is that a war crime?

The use of a thermobaric, or vacuum bomb, specifically targeting civilians is a war crime, but its use against a military target is not.

Some say that Putin may argue that city residents in Ukraine who were told to arm themselves and fight the Russians are no longer civilians. This designation would allow Putin to use weapons against them that are not normally allowed to be used where civilians are concerned.

Who investigates war crimes?

The International Criminal Court investigates war crimes. The court carries out its investigative work through the office of the prosecutor.

Anyone accused of a crime under the jurisdiction of the court, which includes countries that are members of the ICC, can be prosecuted for a war crime.

The court has jurisdiction over four categories of crimes under international law: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes of aggression, which refer to the use or threat of armed force.

How does the court work?

Generally, the International Criminal Court’s investigation includes sending teams to the locations of the alleged war crimes, collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses.

How does an investigation begin?

There are three ways the court can open an investigation into possible war crimes:

· A member country can refer a potential war crime within its own territory.

· The U.N. Security Council can refer a potential war crime.

· The prosecutor can launch an investigation into a member state proprio motu, or “on one’s own initiative.”

Once the prosecutor determines an alleged crime is of “sufficient gravity,” he will then send investigators to collect evidence.

The evidence is presented in a pretrial setting to a group of ICC judges. Those judges examine the evidence and decide if the case should be brought to trial.

The court has 18 judges, each from a different member country.

Cases can be brought against not only those committing crimes, but also those ordering the crimes. That is how war crimes might be brought against Putin, many believe.

Who are the member nations of the ICC?

There are 123 member nations of the ICC — 33 are from Africa, 19 are from the Asia-Pacific, 18 are from Eastern Europe, 28 are from Latin America and the Caribbean, and 25 are from Western Europe and other states.

Neither Russia nor Ukraine are member states, though the prosecutor said the court has jurisdiction to investigate because Ukraine has accepted ICC jurisdiction in the past.

The United States is not a member nation of the ICC.

Is the ICC part of the United Nations?

No, it is separate from the U.N.

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