Can war crimes trials in Ukraine convince Russians to stop supporting the war?

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Lyal S. Sunga, Affiliated Professor, has conducted monitoring, investigation, technical cooperation, education and training in 55 countries over the last 30 years in human rights, humanitarian law and international criminal law, including in Belarus, Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet socialist republics, for the United Nations, RWI, Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe and other partners.

In Ukraine’s first war crimes trial, a 21-year-old Russian tank commander who shot an unarmed 62-year-old Ukrainian civilian in the northeast of the country was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison in late May 2022. By that time, Ukraine had registered more than 14,000 war crimes. Hundreds of war crimes trials were under preparation.

In proving guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, war crimes trials identify victims and perpetrators, detail facts and responsibilities and establish individual responsibility for atrocities. Deliberately shooting unarmed civilians, bombing civilian centers, torturing, raping and murdering civilian men, women and children, abusing prisoners of war, and carrying out summary executions or other atrocities are, as the Nuremberg Judgement held in 1947: “committed by men, not by abstract entities, and only by punishing individuals who commit such crimes can the provisions of international law be enforced.”

War crimes trials, especially when conducted during an armed conflict, can warn combatants at all ranks to think twice before committing such outrages, and they can also inform the general public in belligerent States about barbarity their Governments may be perpetrating in the name of their country.

In “Can War Crimes Trials in Ukraine Convince Russians to Stop Supporting the War?”, published by Opinio Juris, Lyal S. Sunga considers whether war crimes trials in Ukraine might help convince the Russian public to stop supporting what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called ‘an absurd war’, and he points to information sources he thinks might have the greatest likelihood of being trusted by both Russians and Ukrainians when it comes to allegations of atrocities which are always controversial, especially during an ongoing armed conflict.

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