More than 40 countries have agreed to work together to investigate suspected war crimes by Russian forces in Ukraine as the latest shelling of a civilian area killed at least 20 people in the city of Vinnytsia in central Ukraine.
The pledge to coordinate international efforts to bring Russia’s military forces to justice came on Thursday when 45 nations signed a political declaration during a conference at the headquarters of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.
The signatories included European Union states as well as Britain, the United States, Canada, Mexico and Australia. The group promised to provide 20 million euros ($20m) to assist the ICC and to support the prosecutor general’s office in Ukraine and efforts by the United Nations to investigate war crimes.
Speaking to reporters after the conference, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General, Iryna Venediktova, held up a photograph that appeared to show a child’s body as she discussed Thursday’s air attack on Vinnytsia.
“Today, 20 people killed by Russian missiles, including three children, 52 injured by Russian missiles, including children. And this information we have every day from morning to night, night to morning,” she said.
With some 23,000 war crimes being investigated and different countries heading investigative teams in Ukraine, evidence needs to be credible and organised, officials said.
Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra said governments were galvanised by images of “innocent civilians being butchered with their hands tied behind their back, women and men being raped and sometimes family members being forced to look at that”.
Separately, Hoekstra said the Netherlands would consider setting up an international Ukraine war crimes tribunal, in part because neither Ukraine nor Russia is members of the ICC.
Russia withdrew its backing from the ICC in 2016 after the court referred to Moscow’s 2014 seizure and annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine as an armed conflict. Kyiv has, however, accepted the court’s jurisdiction and that cleared the way for the ICC to open an investigation in Ukraine in early March.
“We have to fill a vacuum and the ICC here doesn’t have the jurisdictions so I can imagine we do look into coming up with such a tribunal … We will take a look into this,” Hoekstra said.
Joining the conference via video link, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged the international audience in the Netherlands to set up a special tribunal to address alleged Russian war crimes.
“Existing judicial institutions cannot bring all the guilty parties to justice. Therefore, a special tribunal is needed to address the crime of Russian aggression against Ukraine,” he said.
“A tribunal that will ensure the fair and lawful punishment of those who started this series of disasters,” he added.
Zelenskyy also described Thursday’s missile attack and killing of civilians in Vinnytsia as “the act of Russian terror”.
Russia has repeatedly denied involvement in war crimes and deliberately attacking civilians since it invaded Ukraine.
Russian forces have bombed Ukrainian cities to ruins and left behind bodies in the streets of towns and villages they occupied since invading in February.
Ukraine says tens of thousands of civilians have died. Moscow denies responsibility.
There have also been some reports of Ukrainians mistreating Russian prisoners, though the vast majority of accusations documented by bodies such as the United Nations are of alleged atrocities committed by Russian invaders and their proxies.
“As this meeting takes place, Russian forces continue to commit atrocities in Ukraine with harrowing intensity,” said the United States envoy Uzra Zeya, who attended the meeting.
“With each day the war crimes mount: rape, torture, extrajudicial executions, disappearances, forced deportations, attacks on schools, hospitals, playgrounds, apartment buildings, grain silos, water and gas facilities.”
ICC Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan said there were reasons for hope because more than 40 states were now seeking action on Ukraine through the court.
“At a time like this, the law cannot be a spectator. The law cannot recline in comfort in The Hague,” he said.
Since the start of the invasion, Ukrainian authorities have convicted two Russian soldiers of war crimes.
Russia’s separatist proxies have held their own trials, including passing death sentences on two British fighters and a Moroccan in what Western countries consider sham proceedings.