Joe Biden has upped the ante in his criticisms of Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine by accusing him of genocide, saying the Russian leader is “trying to wipe out the idea of even being Ukrainian”. But how significant is the allegation and how likely is Putin to face genocide charges?
Genocide is one of four crimes prosecuted by the international criminal court (ICC) and generally considered to be the most grave. The court defines it as being “characterised by the specific intent to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group by killing its members or by other means: causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”.
The court, based in The Hague in the Netherlands, has been attacked over its limited number of successful prosecutions: 10, all for war crimes and/or crimes against humanity, with none for genocide. When the ICC prosecutor, Karim Khan, announced in February that he was opening a case into events in Ukraine he said there was “a reasonable basis to believe that both alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed”.
According to cases listed on the ICC website, it has charged only one person with genocide, the then Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, in 2009 over the conflict in Darfur. After a 2003 uprising by mainly non-Arab rebels, his government armed, trained and financed bands of Arab nomads to attack villages across Darfur, killing, raping and looting as they went. He has never stood trial, having rejected the authority of the ICC.
Even if Putin were to be charged with genocide, like Bashir he would be certain to reject the authority of the court – Russia withdrew from the ICC in 2016.
While the ICC has never prosecuted anyone for genocide, there have been convictions at special tribunals. Genocide was first introduced as a legal concept at the Nuremberg trials, where 24 Nazis were indicted after Germany’s surrender in the second world war.
It was more than 50 years later, in 1999, that Jean-Paul Akayesu, a small-town Rwandan mayor, became the first of several people to be convicted of genocide by the international criminal tribunal for Rwanda for his part in the mass killings of the civil war that erupted in the small African nation in 1994.
Radovan Karadžić, the former Bosnian Serb leader, and the former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladić, were convicted of genocide at the UN-backed international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia over the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.
If such a special tribunal were one day to be set up to investigate the war in Ukraine, Putin would be likely to boycott that, too.