When Russian troops pulled out of areas around Kyiv, Ukraine early last month, they left hundreds of bodies strewn in the streets. Some were shot, execution-style; others were tied up before being killed; still others were run over by tanks. Amidst the brutality, there is abundant and mounting evidence that civilians were killed deliberately and indiscriminately. Russia’s full-blown assault on Ukraine is on a scale not seen in Europe since World War II. It has rightly drawn unprecedented condemnation from the UN General Assembly, the Council of Europe, the European Union, and many individual states, as well as a strong rebuke by the International Court of Justice.
Criminal authorities around the world have been swift to respond to international crimes committed in the Russia-Ukraine war. In addition to the over 9, 000 investigations into war crimes and crimes against humanity opened by Ukraine’s prosecutor general, an investigation has been opened by the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), with requests from 43 states for him to take up the situation. The ICC Prosecutor has also taken the unprecedented move of participating in a joint investigation team formed by Ukraine’s prosecutor with prosecutors from Lithuania and Poland and supported by the EU’s Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation. War crimes prosecutors in at least eight other countries have also opened investigations.
In addition, political leaders, legal experts, and civil society, including the Open Society Justice Initiative have called for prosecution of the crime of aggression, of which Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the most egregious instance in decades.
Because this violation of international law focuses on the actions of state leaders, prosecuting the crime of aggression could be the most straightforward charge on which to prosecute Putin and senior Russian officials, particularly when compared with the evidence that will be needed to prosecute distant superiors for crimes their subordinates commit in Ukraine.
To this end, the Open Society Justice Initiative, with advice and input from a range of experts, has drafted a 65-page model indictment (see below) that demonstrates the feasibility of building a solid case against Vladimir Putin and the seven other most senior Russian officials responsible for the crime of aggression. These names include Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, Nikolai Patrushev; Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu; foreign intelligence director Sergey Naryshkin, and others.
Our hope is that this model indictment, which follows previous work along these lines, gives impetus to national investigations currently underway and to efforts to establish a special tribunal, rooted in Ukraine’s legal system but drawing on the support and involvement of one or more international organizations, such as the UN General Assembly, European Union, or the Council of Europe, to prosecute aggression. Given the torrent of atrocities that have been committed, a special tribunal could also take on the prosecution of additional crimes that other courts can’t or won’t address.
During his opening statement to the International Military Tribunal in 1945, Justice Robert H. Jackson, Chief of Counsel for the United States, reminded the court that “the ultimate step in avoiding periodic wars, which are inevitable in a system of international lawlessness, is to make statesmen responsible to law.” The Nuremberg military tribunals convicted Nazi leaders of crimes against peace. Today, all of the horrific crimes committed in Ukraine follow from President Putin’s blatant assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty. Their victims deserve no less than for the world to do everything in its power to ensure he is held responsible.
The model indictment is available as a Scribd file below and also as a separate PDF.