Press Briefing on Crimes Against Humanity Designation by Dr. Beth Van Schaack, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice

Vice President Kamala Harris announced at the Munich Security Conference that the Secretary of State Antony Blinken has determined that members of Russia’s forces and other Russian officials have committed crimes against humanity.  This determination follows extensive analysis by the Department, including my office, the Office of Global Criminal Justice, of information indicating that members of Russia’s forces

  • committed execution-style killings of Ukrainian men, women and children;
  • tortured civilians in detention, including through beatings, electrocutions, and mock executions;
  • raped women and girls;
  • and, alongside other Russian officials, deported hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian civilians to Russia, including children.

As Secretary Blinken explained in his statement, “These acts are not random or spontaneous; they are part of the Kremlin’s widespread and systematic attack against Ukraine’s civilian population.” When it comes to the abduction and deportation of thousands of Ukrainian children in particular, President Joe Biden observed in his remarks in Poland this weekend that Russia has “stolen Ukrainian children in an attempt to steal Ukraine’s future.”

Crimes against humanity are a constellation of acts made criminal under international law when they are committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population, with knowledge of the attack.  This key element—a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population—is generally what distinguishes crimes against humanity from other crimes.    In the case of Ukraine, the Secretary determined that the attack against the Ukrainian civilian population is both widespread and systematic. He also noted: “We reserve crimes against humanity determinations for the most egregious crimes.”

Although crimes against humanity are as old as humanity, the legal concept traces its origins to World War II and the Charter of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. Some crimes by the Nazis—such as the mass deportation or the imprisonment and enslavement of Germany’s own citizens and the citizens of its allies in the war—could not be prosecuted under the traditional formulation of war crimes.  And the Genocide Convention was not drafted until 1948. To capture the scope of horrors suffered by civilians, crimes against humanity were included in the Nuremberg Charter. Senior Nazi military and other government officials were prosecuted for this crime, including those who helped to forcibly deport thousands of civilians.

This weekend’s determination that members of Russia’s forces and other Russian officials are committing crimes against humanity is part of the United States’ multi-faceted policy to hold Russia to account for atrocities in Ukraine.  As President Biden reminded the world yesterday: “no one should turn away their eyes from the atrocities Russia is committing against the Ukrainian people.” The United States, working together with the international community, is committed to holding those responsible—the direct perpetrators and the architects of these atrocities—to account, no matter how long that takes. This includes supporting existing pathways to accountability in Ukrainian courts, the International Criminal Court, and cases that might be brought in courts around the world once they establish jurisdiction over individuals accused of committing international crimes in Ukraine. This is a new Nuremberg moment, and the world must remain united in support of justice.

With that, I am happy to take questions.

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originally published at Politics - JISIP NEWS