What international crimes are Russians committing in Ukraine?

U.S. administration officials accused Russia of deliberately killing civilians in Ukraine as part of its campaign, and said President Biden would work with allies to determine how to hold Putin accountable. Philippe Sands, professor of law at University College London and the author of "East West Street: On the Origins of ‘Genocide’ and ‘Crimes against Humanity,'" joins Nick Schifrin to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we mentioned, this weekend's horrific image is has led President Biden and others to accuse Vladimir Putin of war crimes.

    Ukraine's president and some European leaders even accused Russia of genocide.

    Nick Schifrin looks at the different crimes and how Russia might be held accountable.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, U.S. administration officials accused Russia of deliberately killing civilians in Ukraine as part of its campaign, and said President Biden would work with allies to determine how to hold Putin accountable.

    To discuss this, we turn to Philippe Sands, professor of law at University College London and the author of "East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide."

    Philippe Sands, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    Let's start by talking about what is the difference between war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and a fourth term, crimes of aggression? And why do you think crimes of aggression might be the most important here?

  • Philippe Sands, University College London:


    Well, hi, Nick. And I'm sorry to join you in these horrific images. But thank you for your coverage.

    There are four international crimes. War times, which includes the targeting of civilians. Crimes against humanity, where it crosses a scale because it is systematic. It essentially focusing on individuals. Genocide, where you are targeting groups. And, finally, the crime of aggression, which is the waging of an illegal war.

    All four were installed by the famous Nuremberg trial of 1945-1946. And they are established now in international law. In the present circumstances, where Russia has waged a war that is manifestly illegal, it is plain to me that the crime of aggression is being perpetrated.

    And the significance of that crime is that it is the only one with any degree of certainty which reaches the top table, Mr. Putin, Mr. Lavrov, the defense minister, senior military, senior intelligence, senior political leaders.

    For all the other crimes, the challenge you have got is linking the terrible images we have just seen with the leadership at the top. And that can be difficult.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But as the images show, as Jack reported from Kharkiv, the indiscriminate attacks on civilian neighborhoods, as we saw from Simon, the horrific attacks outside of Kyiv and Bucha this weekend, as you point out, international law requires protecting civilians.

    So, is the war crimes accusation not a clear-cut one?

  • Philippe Sands:

    So, we saw two different sets of images.

    One was plainly of civilian targets, buildings, apartment blocks, being targeted by someone. And that is a violation of the laws of war. It is a war crime to target a nonmilitary objective. The other images were obviously appalling to look at. It looked like individuals who had been tied up, bound, hands behind their backs, apparently shot.

    They appeared to be civilians. That looks to me likely as a war crime, and one that is carried on systematically. So, there is no difficulty proving, I suspect, that war crimes have happened. The question is, who committed them? Was it a bunch of soldiers on the run going a little bit crazy? Or was it on instructions from on high? Did the leadership know about it and turn a blind eye about it?

    And the difficulty of proving what's called command responsibility, the leadership, for war crimes and crimes against humanity is well-established from Yugoslavia and from other conflicts, which is why I and many others say that the principal objective for President Biden should be focusing on the illegality of the war, from which all these other illegalities Stephen Mull.

    And that requires going against Mr. Putin for the crime of aggression.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    As we noted, President Biden today accused Putin of war crimes, but not genocide.

    Ukrainian President Zelenskyy accuses Russia of genocide and gave this reasoning to Margaret Brennan on "Face the Nation" on Sunday.

  • Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukrainian President (through translator):

    The elimination of the whole nation and the people. We are the citizens of Ukraine. We have more than 100 nationalities. This is about the destruction and extermination of all these nationalities.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Extermination of the Ukrainian nation, do you believe that that meets the legal threshold of genocide, the intent to destroy?

  • Philippe Sands:

    Look, Nick, I understand exactly what President Zelenskyy is doing. And, obviously, I have a great deal of sympathy, and in the view of all of these horrors.

    He's using the term genocide, I think, in its political sense, which is the killing of large numbers of people. But that's not the legal sense. The legal sense in international courts and national courts is, you have got to prove something that's very difficult to prove, the intention to destroy a group in whole or in part.

    And courts have been notoriously reticent to do that. So I — from what I have seen, I think it's going to be tough to make out genocide as a crime, although I think crimes against humanity are taking place and war crimes.

    And what President Zelenskyy did last night is, he called for the creation of a special tribunal to target the leadership with the crime of aggression. I think he knows that genocide, crimes against humanity, tying that to the leadership may be more difficult. And he wants to bring the top people, if you like, at the top table into the dock.

    And I think that's what President Biden needs to be focusing on. When President Biden calls Mr. Putin a war criminal, he's probably mixing up, in a sense, the different international crimes. And the question for the administration will be, which of the various crimes do they really want to focus on?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Quickly, because we only have about 30 seconds left, as you pointed out, Zelenskyy called for a special tribunal. You have called for a special tribunal, even though it would not be created by the Security Council, because Russia would veto it.

    Could that special tribunal undercut the work of an International Criminal Court case?

  • Philippe Sands:


    I mean, I'm very supportive of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. And it's continuing its work. It's exercising jurisdiction on war crimes, crimes against humanity, maybe also genocide. I and about 100 former leaders from around the world have called for the creation of a special criminal tribunal, which will sit alongside the ICC in The Hague and investigate in parallel the crime of aggression.

    It's very important to support the prosecutor, as the U.S. Senate has done, remarkably, in a unanimous resolution adopted last week.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Philippe Sands, thank you very much.

  • Philippe Sands:

    Thank you for your work.

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