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U.S. supports efforts to prosecute Russians for alleged war crimes, including at ICC

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The United States says it is supporting all international efforts to prosecute Russians for alleged war crimes in Ukraine, including at the International Criminal Court. It is the world's only standing war crimes tribunal, but the U.S. is not a party to it, and some in Washington oppose it, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When the U.S. ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice spoke at a recent U.N. meeting, Beth Van Schaack had a warning for Russian officials and rank-and-file officers.

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BETH VAN SCHAACK: The world is watching, and you will be held accountable. The United States is supporting a range of international investigations into atrocities in Ukraine.

KELEMEN: That includes, she said, the International Criminal Court. It may seem the obvious choice - the ICC, based in The Hague, was set up to prosecute war crimes when countries won't hold perpetrators to account. But the U.S. is not a party to the court, in part to prevent it from being used against U.S. troops. David Bosco, who teaches at Indiana University, has written a book about the ICC.

DAVID BOSCO: The Defense Department would prefer to keep the U.S. position clear that we actually don't think it's appropriate for the ICC to be prosecuting nonmember-country nationals.

KELEMEN: Neither the U.S. or Russia are members of the court. During the Trump administration, the U.S. imposed sanctions on the ICC to pressure it to drop an investigation into war crimes in Afghanistan because U.S. personnel could be at risk of prosecution. A Russian legal adviser at the U.N., Sergey Leonidchenko, referred to that at the U.N. meeting Wednesday.

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SERGEY LEONIDCHENKO: Many of the participants of the - today's meeting praised the International Criminal Court, which is interesting, since at least two of the co-sponsors of today's meeting, the United States and the United Kingdom, did everything imaginable to shield their own military from the ICC's reach.

KELEMEN: In 2002, Congress passed the American Service-Members' Protection Act to prevent the ICC from prosecuting Americans. But now, some U.S. lawmakers are eager to let the ICC get to work on Russia. Republican Lindsey Graham met recently with the ICC's lead prosecutor.

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LINDSEY GRAHAM: I think he has a good plan for those who are committing war crimes in Ukraine wearing Russian uniforms.

KELEMEN: The prosecutor, Karim Khan, has made the rounds both in Washington and in New York.

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KARIM KHAN: We should feel ashamed that in 2022 we continue in so many parts of the world to see violence that may constitute genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. In the pictures at this particular moment, the focus is on Ukraine, but in many other parts of the world, we need to do better.

KELEMEN: The court was set up two decades ago to be a deterrent to would-be war criminals. That hasn't worked so far in Ukraine, says David Bosco.

BOSCO: Russian leaders knew that they were going to be under scrutiny, and obviously that didn't deter them. That doesn't mean the ICC can't have a deterrent effect in some situations. You know, I know that Ukrainian officials have been trying to send out reminders to Russian generals and commanders that, you know, The Hague could be an ultimate destination for them.

KELEMEN: Like Russia, Ukraine is not a member of the ICC, though it did give the court jurisdiction. Ukraine could try to prosecute cases in its own courts if it can catch the perpetrators. Other European countries could try the same. As for the U.S., it says it's helping to gather evidence for prosecutors in Ukraine or in The Hague.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF PSALM TREES' "CALL WHENEVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.