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U.S. accuses Russia of war crimes in Ukraine. What does it plan to do about it?


We have a story on the difference between saying and doing. It's the difference between saying Russia committed war crimes and getting those claims into court. Vice President Harris did the first part the other day. She attended the Munich Security Conference and said Russia committed crimes against humanity, quote, "we have the evidence." NPR's Deborah Amos reports on the second part.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The vice president's words are rooted in international law. Crimes against humanity, when acts of war are widespread, systematic and intentionally targets civilians. In the early weeks of the war, President Biden called Vladimir Putin a war criminal. But a year later, the U.S. has yet to translate its rhetoric into prosecution, says human rights lawyer Reed Brody.

REED BRODY: Ukraine has made this a priority.

AMOS: Brody wrote "Catching A Dictator," a book about the conviction of a brutal African leader. Catching a Russian president is even harder.

BRODY: Nobody's going to be putting the handcuffs on Vladimir Putin anytime soon. But these are crimes that have no statute of limitations.

AMOS: There is some good news here, says David Scheffer, who served as the first ambassador for war crimes issues in the Clinton administration.

DAVID SCHEFFER: Never before in the history of humankind has a situation of mass atrocities been investigated so quickly by so many individuals.

AMOS: Still, even as the vice president vowed accountability in Munich, conversations around that security conference shows countries in the global south are not yet on board, says Brody.

BRODY: As somebody who worked in Africa for the last 30 years, I'm just so aware of this perception, particularly in the global south, that international justice only kicks in against enemies and outcasts, that there's one justice for the West and there's one justice for enemies of the West.

AMOS: For Ukraine, the enemy is Russia. And Ukraine's leaders insist on justice in their national courts and at the International Criminal Court at the Hague. But their ultimate aim is even higher, an international war crimes tribunal with the jurisdiction to judge Russian aggression. That law was created for the Nuremberg tribunals 80 years ago. The crime of aggression, also called the leadership crime, targeted those who planned and carried out World War II.


AMOS: Ukraine's prosecutor general, Andriy Kostin, was in Washington a few weeks ago to lobby the Biden administration for backing


ANDRIY KOSTIN: Being optimistic, we will have it. And then our idea will be real.

AMOS: His to-do list is a challenge. For starters, international trials get a mixed political reception in Washington. For example, the U.S. didn't join the International Criminal Court, but used its political muscle to weaken it, says Brody.

BRODY: Britain, France and the United States were able to limit the ICC's jurisdiction so that it can't prosecute aggression by citizens of non-consenting states, like Britain, France and the United States - but also like Russia.

AMOS: An international war crimes tribunal could be created by a majority vote at the U.N. General Assembly.

JAMES GOLDSTON: Not to date. We'll see.

AMOS: That's James Goldston with the Open Society in New York. He says a U.N. vote is far from clear.

GOLDSTON: There has been resistance to the notion that this is a global problem, with the suggestion by some that this is a European problem or a northern problem.

AMOS: Again, Reed Brody.

BRODY: There already is a lot of justice in Ukraine. I mean, there are massive war crimes investigations that will work their way up. He will not get off, justice wise, whether or not there is a tribunal for aggression, the supreme international crime.

AMOS: International justice is often uneven, takes years and rarely delivers accountability. Yet Ukraine's victims will settle for nothing less than documenting their trauma in an international court of law.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.