President Joe Biden has become the latest leader to call Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal when asked by reporters Wednesday to weigh in on the subject. In so doing, he joins a growing list of international leaders to condemn Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in the harshest terms — but also reveals one of the hazards of doing so, particularly as the leader of the United States. After all, our own record on war crimes is nowhere near crystal clear, and any International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecution will only have limited significance as long as it continues ignoring other war crimes.
There is no question that Putin should be held accountable for war crimes and, rightfully, the ICC is now investigating that possibility.
Getting a conviction will be a heavy lift. The ICC has never prosecuted a sitting leader, and neither Russia nor Ukraine are parties to the ICC’s founding treaty (nor is the U.S., for that matter). Russia also holds veto power over any UN Security Council recommendation to the ICC.
Still, though it might not result in an actual conviction in the ICC, the international community’s legal censure of Russia is essential to setting a standard and not letting human rights violations and war crimes slide. Among Putin’s myriad potential violations, the indiscriminate bombing of civilian infrastructure and the intentional targeting of hospitals and other medical facilities, constitute war crimes. They breach the Geneva Conventions, which are international rules of engagement for armed conflict.
Locking in this legal censure against Putin should be the floor in terms of holding the Kremlin accountable for its actions in Ukraine.
But something with more teeth may be possible too, given the growing global pushback against Putin. The assistance of economic and social censuring, which created the groundswell for this legal censuring, has been impressive. The economic censures, which include dismissal of Russia’s favored nation trading status, dismemberment from financial systems like SWIFT, discontinuation of energy imports into the West, and a whole host of global business boycotts, send the powerful message that the world is united. And the social signals around the world are a mighty show of people power. That includes the thorough media storytelling of this war and the wellspring of support for Ukraine on social media. All of this may help create the space for the ICC to go further.
But while this legal, economic and social censuring is necessary now and may contribute to ultimately stopping Putin’s aggression, it’s been noticeably absent when the United States has done the same in its recent Geneva Convention-breaching invasions of sovereign nations, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians and the displacement of tens of millions of people.
Did the censurers above, who now support a war crimes probe against Putin, call for the same response to America’s indiscriminate bombing of civilian infrastructure and intentional targeting of hospitals and medical facilities, all of which also constitute war crimes? They did not. And while it’s not easy to recognize faults in one’s own foreign policy, it’s even more difficult to enforce norms internationally when one’s own country continues to contravene them.
Take Afghanistan, where a U.S. AC-130 gunship knowingly fired upon a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, killing dozens of patients and medical staff, including children, and injuring dozens more. The U.S. was warned in advance of the hospital’s location, knew it was there, and decided to intentionally target it anyway.
And these aren’t isolated incidents. A Red Cross site in Afghanistan was bombed twice within two weeks. Such horror stories were common; the U.S. bombed multiple wedding parties and international media offices.
In Iraq, the U.S. strategy was the same. The U.S. intentionally targeted an air raid shelter, killing over 400 civilians who were sheltering from the war, leaving nothing but “charred and mutilated remains,” according to a BBC journalist. The U.S. bombed everything from an infant formula production plant to press offices and civilian hotels in Iraq, where they knew international journalists were staying.
The same U.S. strategy was prevalent in Yemen: American bombs were used on hospitals run by Doctors Without Borders, killing and injuring innocents. For years, in fact, the U.S. aided and abetted the Saudi-led coalition’s intentional bombing of residential areas, again with American bombs.
Meanwhile, in Syria, the U.S. went to great lengths to cover up airstrikes which killed dozens of civilians. In Libya, the U.S. killed scores of civilians in places where there was no valid military target to justify the attacks, with NATO’s assistance. And in Somalia, there’s been zero accountability for U.S. airstrikes that killed civilians.
The list goes on and includes legitimate and actionable nuclear weapons threats by the U.S., just like what we’re seeing now with Putin. And the U.S. presidents responsible, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, have been justly accused of war crimes and are equally deserving of the kind of accountability the world is now calling for with Putin.
It’s much easier to finger-point than take stock internally.
If the ICC, the Geneva Conventions and the UN Security Council are to have any moral weight whatsoever, then we must prosecute justly and consistently. That means when we call for war crimes accountability for Putin, we do it also for Bush and Obama. No war criminals left behind. That means when we call for the UN Security Council to remove Russia’s permanent membership, we do it for the U.S., too. No war criminals allowed. Otherwise, this whole exercise is meaningless and fraught with hypocrisy.
Too many American aggressors are off the hook, making it that much harder to make the case for Russian aggression to be on it. And double standards like this merely provide more ammunition for anti-American propaganda, which is already pervasive.
Prosecute Putin for war crimes. But account for America’s war crimes, too.
Michael Shank is adjunct professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and George Mason University’s Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution.