Russia must face tribunal for ‘crime of aggression’ in Ukraine, say cross-party leaders

Pressure grows on Putin as politicians and lawyers point to principles that led to Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals

Demands for a special tribunal to investigate Russia for a “crime of aggression” against Ukraine have been backed by senior UK politicians from across the political divide in a move to show Vladimir Putin and his generals that they will be held to account.

In a joint statement shared with the Observer, figures including the Labour leader Keir Starmer, the former Nato secretary general George Robertson, the former foreign secretary David Owen, and former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith say the tribunal should be set up to look into the “manifestly illegal war” on the same principles that guided the allies when they met in 1941 to lay the groundwork for the Nuremberg war crimes trials of Nazi leaders.

While the International Criminal Court (ICC) is already looking at allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in relation to the Ukraine invasion, advocates for a special tribunal say it is needed because the ICC does not have the power to examine the crime of aggression. The United Nations defines an act of aggression as the “invasion or attack by the armed forces of a state on the territory of another state, or any military occupation”.

A special tribunal would heap further pressure on Russia and Putin, its advocates say. It would stop senior Russian officials from travelling out of fear of arrest, show solidarity with Ukraine, which has requested the tribunal, and send a message from the international community that aggression will not go unpunished. It would also examine Belarus’s role.

“It has been 10 months since Russia, backed by Belarus, launched one of the largest ground invasions in Europe since the second world war,” they write. “Since then, thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been killed or injured, 8 million people have been internally displaced and around 8 million have become refugees. Civilian infrastructure and economic assets worth tens of billions have been destroyed or plundered, and irreplaceable cultural monuments reduced to rubble.

“If proven in court, these acts of aggression could constitute what the Nuremberg trials termed the ‘supreme international crime’. For it is the crime of aggression from which most other international crimes – war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide – often flow.”

Vladimir Putin
Calls for a special tribunal are intended to show Vladimir Putin that he will be held to account for his actions in Ukraine. Photograph: Mikhael Klimentyev/SPUTNIK/KREMLIN/EPA

The statement was drawn up by the former prime minister Gordon Brown and Philippe Sands, a law professor who was the first to raise the idea of a special tribunal. Others who signed the statement include the human rights barristers Cherie Blair and Helena Kennedy.

The Netherlands had said earlier that it was willing to host such a tribunal backed by the UN. The European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has also said that a new tribunal with broad support was needed to ensure Russia’s invasion did not go unpunished. A Ukrainian delegation travelled to the US last month in an effort to gain support for the move.

A UK government spokesperson said: “There is growing evidence that appalling atrocities have been committed during Russia’s illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine. We have been actively supporting Ukraine’s own domestic judicial system, investigations and prosecutions, as well as the investigation under way by the ICC. We are, of course, carefully considering other proposals for mechanisms to hold Russia to account.”

The move came as Russia continued to launch attacks across Ukraine on Saturday, despite declaring a unilateral ceasefire for the Orthodox celebration of Christmas. One attack killed a civilian couple in their 60s in eastern Bakhmut.

Some of the fiercest fighting was around the nearby town of Kreminna, in Luhansk, Britain’s Ministry of Defence said. The Russian-installed governor of Sevastopol in Crimea also said air defences had shot down a Ukrainian drone apparently trying to attack the port.

Ukraine’s government had rejected the ceasefire as a cynical Kremlin move, particularly after heavy Russian attacks during Ukrainian celebrations on 25 December and over the new year.

In Kyiv, priests from the Ukrainian orthodox church held a Christmas service in Ukrainian at the historic Pechersk Lavra monastery, one of most important religious sites in the city. Until just a few weeks ago, it was under the control of the Orthodox church loyal to Moscow, whose priests are widely suspected across Ukraine of harbouring pro-Kremlin sympathies.


Michael Savage Policy Editor and Emma Graham-Harrison in Kyiv

The GuardianTramp

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