My favorite hotels in Lviv were all booked out over the weekend. The world’s justice elite were in town for a gathering on how to hold Russia accountable for its crimes. The US attorney general and the chief prosecutor from The Hague, as well as President Volodymyr Zelensky, were there. It was an apposite location. In the early twentieth century Lviv was home to the lawyers Raphael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, who later gave us a language to define modern evil by coming up with the concepts of “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” respectively.
Russian media, military and officials boast openly of their genocidal intention in Ukraine and revel in their war crimes: just this week Russian soldiers posted a video of themselves casually executing a Ukrainian PoW as he stood defenseless in some woods. They want to show the world that they can act with impunity and that all the concepts that tried to tame evil with justice are meaningless. I grew up in a generation where relativism was considered sophisticated and thinking in categories like “evil” was deemed naive. Now it feels as if we were running away from the much tougher question of how to challenge actual evil as it bears down relentlessly on everything you love.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year ago I’ve been working with an alliance of journalists and lawyers, the Reckoning Project, to collect evidence of war crimes that are also used for long-form stories about atrocities. If all the evidence-collectors — who also include local teachers, open-source intelligence nerds and first responders — band together, then maybe we can start to fight back against the mountains of Russia’s murders and lies. “Russia wants to divide us,” my colleague Janine di Giovanni told the justice conference in Lviv, “but if we co-ordinate we can be more than the sum of our parts.” If we really want to win then we need to look at “justice” not only in courts of law, but also in courts of public opinion, and of sanctions, culture, technology, diplomacy. Anyone proven to be responsible for atrocities needs to know there will be a reckoning even if we never bring them to The Hague.
The weeks around the anniversary of the invasion were busy for the Reckoning Project. Months of work produced stories for the cover of TIME and elsewhere. As she goes through our testimonies, Janine tells me she has seen much of it before: she reported from Vladimir Putin’s bludgeoning of Grozny and Aleppo. This is a pattern of intentional behavior by Russia and it didn’t start in February 2022.
Our next mission is to build cases based on our testimonies. The crimes are many — and often egregious. On Russian TV Putin was seen speaking to the country’s children’s rights commissioner, who boasted of having adopted a Ukrainian teenager from Mariupol. The US-based Conflict Observatory estimates that some 6,000 children have been forcibly deported from Ukraine, and “re-educated”: forced to forget Ukrainian and to learn to “love” the people who murdered their families. Ibrahim Olabi, a lawyer with the Reckoning Project, explains to me that this is a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians, which forbids the unlawful transfer and deportation of protected persons (specifically children). Those around Putin must be well aware of this and flaunt their criminal activity. It’s a way to show loyalty. Smear yourself in blood to show your fealty to the boss. The question of the legal responsibility of propagandists was the topic for a panel at another conference I attended in Kyiv. Propagandists historically get away with their role in war crimes. At Nuremberg the head of Nazi state radio, Hans Fritzsche, was found not guilty. For all his antisemitic broadcasts, he was judged not to have been part of the political or military decision-making process. The wilier Russian propagandists ramp up calls on state television for the mass-murder of Ukrainians, then quickly pull back and claim that they are just stating an opinion and are mere journalists. They have half an eye on the Kremlin — and half on The Hague.
This week I worked with a group of humanitarian lawyers to put the final touches to a proposal that will show how Russian information operations are integrated into war crimes. The traces left on digital media make it easier than ever before to chart how the media and military missions work together. According to Ukrainian researchers, in the hours before Russia strikes civilian targets in the country, swarms of online accounts will pre-emptively accuse the Ukrainians of “bombing themselves,” while Russian TV presenters and government officials will falsely claim, in unison, that “Nazi” soldiers are hiding in maternity hospitals or apartment blocks — all in order to legitimize attacking these civilian targets. We aren’t talking here about mere journalists expressing abhorrent opinions, but the deliberate use of information operations to aid and abet crimes. Can we prove that those involved know what they’re doing? I’m reminded of a Russian mafia phrase: “Are you ready to take responsibility for your bullshit?”
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.