QOTD: War Crimes

 

The headline here is that the US State Department has spoken:

Today, I can announce that, based on information currently available, the U.S. government assesses that members of Russia’s forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine.

I have up until this point been maintaining an open mind as to the question of war crimes. This has largely been based on two points:

  • It’s very hard to determine who fired a particular shell and why.
  • Civilians in a war zone are going to get killed. Doesn’t mean anyone wanted them killed; wars are messy.

I suppose I should also add that I’m not arguing from any legal definition of war crime here. I’m going from a gut level understanding. Killing the other guy’s soldiers is war. Intentionally killing the other guy’s civilians is a war crime. Bombing a military base and incidentally killing civilian contractors who happened to be on the base at that time is war.

Determining what is and what isn’t a war crime can get messy. For example, the State Department statement states that “Russian forces have destroyed … shopping centers, …” Here’s one example: Before: On Google Maps. After: Photo #6 here. Does blowing up that mall count as a war crime? I don’t actually know. If it’s filled with civilians obviously so. If it’s been evacuated and used as a defensive fortification by the Ukrainian military then no, that’s just war, and things get blown up in war.

Back to the State Department’s statement, there are two specific claims of war crimes made therein:

Many of the sites Russia’s forces have hit have been clearly identifiable as in-use by civilians.  This includes the Mariupol maternity hospital, as the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights expressly noted in a March 11 report.  It also includes a strike that hit a Mariupol theater, clearly marked with the word “дети” — Russian for “children” — in huge letters visible from the sky.

These are two incidents I’ve read about. For the maternity hospital I’ll link you straight to the debunking of the debunking. (If there’s been a debunking of the debunking of the debunking I haven’t seen it.) Quoting a bit from the linked article:

Earlier, during an address to the United Nations on March 7 (two days before the bombing discussed in this article), Russia’s Permanent Representative Vasily Nebenzya also alleged that one of Mariupol’s maternity hospitals had been seized. However, he named a specific facility. Citing “local residents,” Nebenzya said that “having kicked out all the staff of Mariupol’s Maternity Hospital No. 1, the Ukrainian Armed Forces set up a firing position there.” The day after the bombing of Maternity Hospital No. 3 (March 10), Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov — incorrectly citing Nebenzya’s claim — said that “this maternity hospital had long been seized by the Azov Battalion and other radicals.”

Suppose the Russians actually believed there was an Azov Battalion firing position in Maternity Hospital #1. The Russians give a command to fire upon No. 1, and the radio somehow garbles it to No. 3. The numbers aren’t similar sounding in Russian, but stick with me here. The Russian general thinks he’s firing on a legitimate target, the artilleryman thinks he’s got a legitimate order, and civilians needlessly die. Would that still constitute a war crime?

Take the second example, the theater in Mariupol. Here’s the (pre-war) satellite view from Google Maps. Click around, look at the photos of the place. NPR has the picture with the word дети here. Here’s after images. Is that a war crime? I still don’t know. Possibly the Russians thought something else was going on there, possibly they used a weapon that wasn’t capable of reading “children” before detonating. Possibly they were targeting something else nearby. (The Russian official line on this is that the attack was a false flag operation conducted by the Azov Battalion. I don’t find this credible.)

Then we have the State department weighing in. Do I trust the State department to be telling the truth about this? No. I trust the basic facts are there because I can verify them. A maternity hospital was shelled. I do not trust in the good faith of the American Intelligence community to honestly present what they actually know and believe to the public. I don’t trust in the competence of the federal government from Biden to Blinken all the way down to Bob the guy who runs diversity seminars at Langley to get the story right. Referencing the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights doesn’t help their story any.

After all that though, do I think Russia is committing war crimes in this war? Yes, I do. Wars are messy. It’s hard to know what’s actually happening. But if I don’t know there were any civilians in the bombed out malls then I also don’t know there weren’t any there. If I look at any individual story I can come up with a theory that no war crime took place here. The more stories I come up with though the probability that every last one of those theories is true gets smaller and smaller. In the end, even if every single civilian death in the war is an accident and not a war crime, well, Putin didn’t have to invade.

I think Russia is committing war crimes. That’s not very important news. The State Department thinks so too. That’s more important. The question now becomes “What are we going to do about it?”

Published in Foreign Policy
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There are 32 comments.

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  1. Nohaaj Coolidge
    Nohaaj
    @Nohaaj

    Franco (View Comment):
    So this talk of “war crimes” is mere rhetoric meant to fuel outrage and a sense of righteousness for propaganda purposes.

    This exactly. 

    If you want war crimes, look to other conflicts in the world, particularly those in Africa where typically Muslims annihilate entire villages, and perpetrate untold gruesome acts of real war crimes, with nary a peep from the rest of the world.  

    • #31
  2. Vince Guerra Inactive
    Vince Guerra
    @VinceGuerra

    Nohaaj (View Comment):

    Franco (View Comment):
    So this talk of “war crimes” is mere rhetoric meant to fuel outrage and a sense of righteousness for propaganda purposes.

    This exactly.

    If you want war crimes, look to other conflicts in the world, particularly those in Africa where typically Muslims annihilate entire villages, and perpetrate untold gruesome acts of real war crimes, with nary a peep from the rest of the world.

    Often with weapons supplied by the U.S. 

    • #32
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