The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has opened an online portal to gather evidence of war crimes in Ukraine, as he renewed his call to combatants to abide by the laws of war.
Prosecutor Karim Khan said in a written statement Friday that he is “closely following the deeply troubling developments in hostilities.” There have been reports in recent days of Russian strikes on civilian infrastructure in Ukrainian towns and cities, including the deadly strike on a maternity hospital in Mariupol earlier this week.
Khan notes in a written statement that “if attacks are intentionally directed against the civilian population: that is a crime. If attacks are intentionally directed against civilian objects: that is a crime. I strongly urge parties to the conflict to avoid the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas.” He says there is no legal justification or excuse “for attacks which are indiscriminate, or which are disproportionate in their effects on the civilian population.”
Khan also said that two more of the global court’s member states, Japan and North Macedonia, have formally requested him to investigate in Ukraine, bringing the number of so-called state party referrals to 41.
The information will bolster evidence gathered by an investigative team Khan sent to the region last week to begin gathering evidence.
Neither Russia nor Ukraine is an ICC member state, but Kyiv has recognized the court’s jurisdiction, allowing Khan to investigate war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
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It comes amid mounting reports of Russian forces allegedly using cluster munitions in Ukraine, including in populated areas which is prohibited under international humanitarian law.
The United Nations human rights office said Friday it had received “credible reports” that residential areas and civilian infrastructure are being shelled in Mariupol, Kharkiv, Sumy and Chernihiv and “the utter devastation being visited on these cities is horrific.”
Most of the civilian casualties recorded by the U.N. human rights office — 564 killed and 982 injured as of Thursday — “have been caused by explosive weapons with a wide impact area, including heavy artillery and multi-launch rocket systems, and missile and air strikes,” Undersecretary-General Rosemary DiCarlo said.
“Indiscriminate attacks, including those using cluster munitions, which are of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction, are prohibited under international humanitarian law,” DiCarlo said. “Directing attacks against civilian and civilian objects, as well as so-called area bombardment in towns and villages, are also prohibited under international law and may amount to war crimes.”
The United Kingdom on Wednesday said that Russia’s Defense Ministry confirmed the use of thermobaric weapons, also known as "vacuum bombs," in Ukraine.
If substantiated, deployment of the weapons, especially in crowded civilian areas, would usher in new humanitarian concerns in the conflict and would also be considered war crimes.
While U.S. intelligence agencies have maintained they have no evidence of Russia using vacuum bombs in Ukraine, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, also alleged on Feb. 28 that the military had in fact used the weapons in the conflict. She did not provide specifics on where such a weapon was used nor did she provide evidence to support her claim.
A senior defense official told NBC News that Russia has launcher systems in Ukraine that could be used for a thermobaric weapon, but the U.S cannot confirm the presence of those weapons or their use.
As of Thursday the U.N. World Health Organization has verified 26 attacks on health facilities, health workers and ambulances, including the bombing of the Mariupol maternity hospital, which caused 12 deaths and 34 injuries, DiCarlo said.
All alleged violations of international humanitarian law must be investigated and those found responsible must be held accountable, she added.
This is a live update. Click here for complete coverage of the crisis in Ukraine.