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The Munich Security Conference was the site of Vice President Kamala Harris’ announcement that the United States has formally determined that Russia has committed crimes against humanity in Ukraine. Harris said that “justice must be served” to the perpetrators of these crimes, which include gruesome acts of murder, torture, rape, and deportation. Russian forces have pursued a widespread and systemic attack against a civilian population. She also cited “execution-style killings, beatings, and electrocution.”
The Biden administration formally determined last March that Russian troops had committed war crimes in Ukraine and said it would work with others to prosecute offenders. A determination of crimes against humanity goes a step further, indicating that attacks against civilians are being carried out in a widespread and systematic manner.
Harris emphasized that the international community has both a moral and strategic interest in pursuing those responsible for these crimes. She pointed to the danger of other authoritarian governments taking advantage if international rules are undermined.
“Russian authorities have forcibly deported hundreds of thousands of people, from Ukraine to Russia, including children,” Harris said. “They have cruelly separated children from their families.” She also pointed to the attack in mid-March on a theater in the strategic port city of Mariupol where civilians had been sheltering, which killed hundreds, and to the images of civilians’ bodies left on the streets of Bucha after the Russian pullback from the Kyiv area last spring.
As a former prosecutor and former head of California’s Department of Justice, Harris knows “the importance of gathering facts and holding them up against the law.” “In the case of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, we have examined the evidence, we know the legal standards, and there is no doubt,” she said. “These are crimes against humanity.”
The Biden administration has vowed to hold members of Russia’s forces and other officials accountable for their atrocities. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who also attended the Munich conference, said in a statement issued as Harris spoke that “we reserve crimes against humanity determinations for the most egregious crimes.” The new determination underlines the “staggering extent” of suffering inflicted on Ukrainian civilians and “also reflects the deep commitment of the United States to holding members of Russia’s forces and other Russian officials accountable for their atrocities,” he said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed the U.S. determination of crimes against humanity, saying Kyiv this week had gotten “strong signals from our partners, specific agreements on the inevitability of holding Russia accountable for aggression, for terror against Ukraine and its people.” “Every Russian attack … on every corner of our state will have concrete legal consequences for the terrorist state,” Zelenskyy said, citing attacks not just in the past year of war but dating back to 2014, when fighting with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine first broke out.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has lasted nearly a year, has dominated discussions at the Munich conference, an annual gathering of security and defense officials from around the world. Harris told the assembled participants: “Let us all agree — on behalf of all the victims, both known and unknown, justice must be served.” “Such is our moral interest,” she said. “We also have a significant strategic interest.”
If Russian President Vladimir Putin succeeds in attacking international rules and norms, she said, “other authoritarian powers could seek to bend the world to their will, through coercion, disinformation, and even brute force.”
While Western officials defended arms supplies to Ukraine, China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, called for an end to the war through peace talks, saying Beijing was “deeply worried about the expansion and long-term effect of this war.” China has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or to impose sanctions on Moscow like Western nations have.
The determination by the United States that Russia has committed crimes against humanity in Ukraine is a significant development in the ongoing conflict between the two countries. Vice President Kamala Harris, speaking at the Munich Security Conference, emphasized the moral and strategic importance of holding those responsible for these crimes accountable. The Biden administration has vowed to prosecute offenders and has underscored the staggering extent of suffering inflicted on Ukrainian civilians.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed the U.S. determination and emphasized the inevitability of holding Russia accountable for its aggression against Ukraine. The conflict has dominated discussions at the Munich conference, with Western officials defending arms supplies to Ukraine and China calling for an end to the war through peace talks.
The determination of crimes against humanity goes beyond the earlier determination by the Biden administration that Russian troops had committed war crimes in Ukraine, indicating that attacks against civilians are being carried out in a widespread and systematic manner. This underscores the gravity of the situation and the need for accountability for those responsible.
The U.S. determination sends a strong message to Russia and other authoritarian governments that attacks against civilians will not be tolerated and that international rules and norms must be respected. It also highlights the importance of the international community coming together to address such atrocities and hold those responsible accountable.