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Investigating possible war crimes in Ukraine

Andrey Goncharuk, 68, a member of territorial defense wipes his face in the backyard of a house that was damaged by a Russian airstrike, according to locals, in Gorenka, outside the capital Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 2, 2022. (Vadim Ghirda/AP)
Andrey Goncharuk, 68, a member of territorial defense wipes his face in the backyard of a house that was damaged by a Russian airstrike, according to locals, in Gorenka, outside the capital Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 2, 2022. (Vadim Ghirda/AP)

“Geopolitical terrorism. Pure and simple.”

That is how EU chairman Charles Michel describes the Russian shelling of Ukrainian cities.

While Karim Khan, chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, says he’s seen enough to send a team of investigatorsto seek evidence of war crimes in Ukraine.

“I think the world is watching. The world expects better.”

Today, On Point: Bombing and encircling civilians in cities, indications that cluster bombs may have been dropped. Is Russia committing war crimes in Ukraine?


Jeffrey Edmonds, expert on Russia and Eurasia. Research scientist with the Center for Naval Analyses. Former director for Russia at the National Security Council. (@jeffaedmonds)

Richard Weir, researcher in the crisis and conflict division at Human Rights Watch. (@rich_weir)

Philippe Sands, professor of law and director of the Centre for International Courts and Tribunals at University College London. Author of East West Street. (@philippesands)

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst. (@JackBeattyNPR)

Transcript: A Prosecutor’s Story Of The Nuremberg Trials

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Back in 1947, a young prosecutor represented the United States in what was the most important war crimes trials of the 20th century. The Einsatzgruppen portion of the Nuremberg trials, the largest mass murder trial in history.

BENJAMIN FERENCZ: My name is Benjamin Ferencz. When I was 27-years-old, which was a long time ago, I was the chief prosecutor for the United States in one of the subsequent Nuremberg trials.

FERENCZ [Tape]: The case we present is a plea of humanity to law.

FERENCZ: Which tried and convicted 22 high-ranking Nazis of murdering in cold blood over a million people, mostly Jews and mostly in Ukraine.

FERENCZ [Tape]: We shall establish, beyond the realm of doubt, facts which before the dark decade of the Third Reich would have seemed incredible.

CHAKRABARTI: Benjamin Florenz is now 101-years-old. He turns 102 on Friday, and he is the last living prosecutor for the Nuremberg trials.

FERENCZ: I found personally, I found the records of the special extermination squads known as Einsatzgruppen in Germany. Their assignment was to kill all the Jews in Europe.

FERENCZ [Tape]: We show that the slaughter committed by these defendants was dictated not by military necessity, but by that supreme perversion of thought, the Nazi theory of the master race.

FERENCZ: They sent a daily report back to headquarters in Berlin, listing which units A, B, C or D of the Einsatzgruppen were located where in Ukraine, for example. And how many people they had killed. When I totaled a million people murdered on a little adding machine, I went to Nurnberg from Berlin, where my headquarters were then located and said, We have to put on trial. They said, We can’t. The lawyers have already all been assigned. The Pentagon is not [doing anything] about this.

We can’t get approval. I said, you can’t let these people go. I have in my hand here a million people murdered. They’re not going to let those bastard get off. And he said, Well, can you do it in addition to your other work? I said, Sure. He said, OK, you do it. I ended up there as my first case. You say it takes a long time. It took me a long time, two days, two days. And I rested the prosecutor’s case, and I convicted all of them.

FERENCZ [Tape]: We shall show … the methodical execution of long-range plans to destroy ethnic, national, political and religious groups which stood condemned in the Nazi mind. Genocide, the extermination of whole categories of human beings as a foremost instrument of the Nazi doctrine.

FERENCZ: That was what we were trying to do, we tried to bring justice in place of vengeance. Because vengeance just begets more vengeance, and I made a specific point in the opening segment, Vengeance is not our goal.

FERENCZ [Tape]: Vengeance is not our goal. Nor do we seek merely a just retribution. We ask this court to affirm by international penal action the man’s right to live in peace and dignity, regardless of his race or creed.

CHAKRABARTI: Nuremberg set the standard for justice in the wake of unspeakable war crimes. Since then, much but not all of the world has joined, for example, the International Criminal Court in The Hague. But even there, as Ferencz acknowledges, successful prosecutions are exceedingly difficult and exceedingly rare, in part because of resistance from the very nations who fought to defeat the Nazis.

FERENCZ: But we can’t be defeated by the fact that there are some people who don’t believe in the rule of law. They believe in power, and they want to exercise it whenever they think it’s in their interest to do so. And they’re very sizable number of people. So it’s not something where everybody is of one mind. There are some people who believe in the rule of force, that’s what gets us into the current situation. The only hope really is law, not war. The three words: law, not war.

FERENCZ: Benjamin Ferencz. In 1947, he was just 27-years-old and the chief prosecutor for the United States in the Nuremberg trials. He’s 101-years-old now.

Related Reading

Los Angeles Times: “Op-Ed: Putin’s crime of aggression in Ukraine and the International Criminal Court” — “The opening of an International Criminal Court investigation into the crimes perpetrated by Russian forces in Ukraine has raised hopes that Vladimir Putin’s regime will be brought to justice.”

The Daily Mail: “Why we need a new Nuremberg trial to make Putin pay” — “Mr Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and the crimes being committed in his name, feel very personal to me. It is where many of my family once lived.”

Financial Times: “Putin’s use of military force is a crime of aggression” — “His invasion of Ukraine poses a grave challenge, and one that sanctions and financial measures alone cannot address.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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