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Prosecuting war crimes in Ukraine

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to start in Ukraine today, where it's been nearly a year since the Russian invasion. The onslaught has leveled huge swaths of Ukrainian cities and towns, killed thousands of people and displaced millions. Speaking earlier today at the Munich Security Conference, Vice President Kamala Harris said the United States has determined that Russia has committed crimes against humanity.

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VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: To all those who have perpetrated these crimes and to their superiors who are complicit in these crimes, you will be held to account.

MARTIN: Ukraine's prosecutor general, Andriy Kostin, says his team has catalogued more than 65,000 alleged war crimes over the course of the war. We wanted to understand how Ukraine can begin to approach an investigation of this scale, so we reached out to Wayne Jordash. He is a lawyer and managing partner at Global Rights Compliance. He's been based in Ukraine for the last seven years in an effort to help the Ukrainian government investigate and prosecute possible war crimes. And I asked him if Ukraine is different than other places where such investigations have taken place.

WAYNE JORDASH: Without a doubt. I've worked on a number of conflicts, from the Rwandan genocide to the break with the former Yugoslavia to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and so on and so forth. And I don't think I've ever seen such a calculated plan to effectively enslave and subjugate millions of people. That's what would have happened if the Russian military operation had succeeded. I mean, it built into this military operation of war crimes and crimes against humanity and possibly genocide. So most conflicts, the crimes are, yes, a mixture of intentional and incidental. But this, there's no mistake. These crimes were a fundamental and inherent part of the military operation.

MARTIN: Can you give us a sense of what you're seeing and what types of crimes are being investigated?

JORDASH: So we're talking about everything from killing to detention to torture to sexual violence, to damaging and destruction of cultural artifacts. I mean, you name it, this conflict contains it. The Russian military operation effectively takes three approaches. The first is to try to capture and kill all the leaders, the leaders being the military and the police. And then that definition expands as the resistance grows because it becomes much more about the cultural aspects. So teachers are targeted, journalists are targeted, human rights activists are targeted. Anyone who can help Ukraine organize itself on a cultural level, they're being killed.

The second is then to run these very brutal filtration systems, which involves monitoring the population, infiltrating them constantly to ensure that everybody is behaving accordingly so that there's no resistance in society. And then what follows after that is the real objective, which is to remove anything and everything which is Ukrainian. So the educational system is changed. Children are conditioned to believe in the Russian motherland. Cultural artifacts are attacked and destroyed. It's crystal clear that Ukrainians don't want this. The more they resist, the more the crimes flow.

MARTIN: We also hear that, for example, there's a study from Yale that came out earlier this week that said that Russia was taking Ukrainian children to be adopted by Russian families - in essence, sort of erasing their Ukrainian-ness. And the study said that this is also a war crime. Have you seen this? Have you - are you working on any such cases? And in your - from your point of view, is this a war crime as well?

JORDASH: I've read the report by Yale, and it's consistent with what I've seen in other places. If this was just a Russian military occupation plan, you don't need to deport Ukrainians into Russia. The purpose of that is plain. It's to essentially enslave people and to condition the children into a more pro-Russian stance. So that, in a sense, the deportation of children, the abduction of children, it really reflects the essence of this criminal plan.

MARTIN: So on the one hand, we see this staggering number of cases on the - and then we also think of, I think, crimes being committed by specific people, taking specific actions, even if those actions have been determined far away. And I just - it's just hard to understand how you can account for both of those phenomena. Do you understand what I'm asking? Like, how is this - how can we think about this?

JORDASH: What you have is a criminal plan which is plainly emanating from the Kremlin. Now, what we see is in places like Bucha, places like Mariupol is that there comes a point, certainly amongst the foot soldiers, at some point when the plan has failed so badly that the violence inherent in the plan expands and is exacerbated and explodes into a fury of violence. And that's why you see, in Bucha, for example, just this flurry of what seems to be almost random violence.

It's the consequence, as I see it, of the plan failing, Mariupol completely destroyed, a city of hundreds of thousands of people just flattened. Why? Because it resisted. Because it couldn't be taken. And so this nihilistic criminal plan turns into this flurry of violence. So you have both a plan emanating from the Kremlin, and then you have on the ground the consequences of the plan, which, in some instances, becomes - certainly, it looks like it could be genocidal.

MARTIN: What would justice look like in this case? One would think that, you know, prosecutions would take - could take years.

JORDASH: The reality is we're not going to see many trials very quickly. I know that the Ukrainians want that. But the reality is that many of the foot soldiers who committed the crimes back in Russia are dead. And the higher political and military leadership in Russia will not be leaving Russia very often, and certainly not to countries who exercise their obligation to deal with international crimes properly.

Now, what I would say justice looks like despite that - I mean, I'm an international criminal prosecutor. I would like to see trials. But my main motivation, or an equal motivation, is to document these crimes as reliably as possible with integrity so that we create a bedrock of truth and a historical record which can be used to counter Russia's misinformation.

I think what we need and Russia needs, ultimately, is a record which shows exactly what Putin did and so on and so forth, so that even when they deny it, as, undoubtedly, they will continue to do, the record speaks for itself. And I think we as an international community need to be better at creating such a record, using such a record and having the patience to wait in the hopes that we will get hold of some of these individuals and put them on trial.

MARTIN: That was Wayne Jordash. He is a lawyer specializing in international humanitarian and criminal law, and we reached him in Ukraine. Mr. Jordash, thank you so much for sharing this expertise with us. We appreciate It.

JORDASH: Thank you.

MARTIN: We reached out to the press representatives for the Russian military asking for their response to the specific accusations of war crimes, including the kidnapping of Ukrainian children. They did not respond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.