U.S. President Joe Biden has accused Vladimir Putin of being a war criminal. In other words, in the Russian-Ukraine War, Putin has committed so-called war crimes according to international law. This concept, developed in the mid-19th century, fundamentally applies to any actions taken against the people of an invaded country and includes indiscriminate violence, rape, cruelty and murder.
In the 20th century, at international conferences during World War II, such as the Moscow Conference in 1943 and the Potsdam Conference in 1945, leaders of the Allied forces expressed a desire to address German and Japanese war crimes. After the war, the Nuremberg Charter listed three types of crimes committed in war: crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Crimes against peace include preparing for and launching war, while crimes against humanity are political, ethnic and religious persecution, including genocide.
In the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials after the war, Allied leaders successfully prosecuted German and Japanese war criminals. During the Nuremberg Trials, 22 German war criminals were tried; all but three were sentenced, while 12 were sentenced to death. Of the 25 Japanese war criminals, seven were hanged, 16 were imprisoned for life and two received determinate prison sentences. Although Germany and Japan had been defeated, Allied forces may have also been involved in war crimes while carrying out their missions, but they were never prosecuted. Therefore, critics believe that trials for war crimes are nothing but justice for the victors.
When Biden accused Putin of being a war criminal, I believe that many people in developing countries, and even many Americans, thought about how the U.S. military behaved during the Iraq War and wondered whether that behavior justified labeling George W. Bush a war criminal. If the reader is interested, an online search for “Bush” and “war crime” yields countless links. Among the search results is the story from two or three years ago that Mark Ruffalo, star of the Hollywood movie “The Avengers,” hoped to see Bush brought to justice. Even earlier in 2011, five judges in the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Commission all convicted Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair of committing crimes against peace, crimes against humanity and genocide during the Iraq War.
However, it was Michael Haas who really stuck Bush with the label of war criminal in his 2009 book, “George W. Bush, War Criminal? The Bush Administration’s Liability for 269 War Crimes.” Among the evidence Haas meticulously laid out, six crimes were related to starting a war of aggression, 36 were related to crimes committed during the war, 175 were related to treatment of war prisoners, and 52 were related to postwar occupation.
If Putin is accused of committing war crimes, they are, of course, related to his launching an invasion of Ukraine. Furthermore, according to international media reports, we cannot rule out that Russian troops have engaged in war crimes by indiscriminately attacking nonmilitary and civilian targets. As for launching the war, we often mention reasons such as Russia’s intolerance of Ukraine wanting to join NATO, as well as Moscow’s support for pro-Russia votes for independence in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. However, in a recent speech to a domestic audience, Putin provided another important piece of news — the U.S. is supporting dozens of chemical or biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine, which is a threat to Russian security.
Putin’s comments sound very familiar, they are similar to accusations by the U.S. before the Iraq War that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Not only did the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency disprove this accusation after an investigation, but a special report by the U.S. Senate also concluded that the Bush administration had misled the public. We have no way of verifying whether the U.S. is developing chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, but if Putin uses it as an excuse to invade neighboring countries without evidence, it is as unjustified as Bush’s reasons for launching the Iraq War. If Putin is a war criminal, Bush is as well. If Bush isn’t a war criminal, why is Putin still labeled as one?
The author is an adjunct researcher at the National Chengchi University Institute of International Relations.