Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine two and a half months ago, the suspicion that both Moscow and kyiv could use prohibited weapons has overflown the conflict. The accusations have been mutual and both international observers and organizations working on the ground are closely monitoring two types of attack: bcluster bombs and chemical weapons.
While in the international community there is a broad consensus to eradicate the use of chemical weapons, fewer countries have banned the use of cluster munitions. These are some of the keys that explain why, despite the rejection of the international community, the countries with the most powerful armies in the world continue to use prohibited weapons.
Possible war crime in a bombing in Kharkov
On February 28, a Russian attack on the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv killed a child and three other people collecting water and injured 16 other civilians. This bombing was documented in many videos and Amnesty International has already made a first report denouncing a possible war crime.
Among the evidence collected, a photograph verified by Bellingcat stands out, an investigative group that tracks the network in search of evidence of these attacks. The image points to the attack included at least one Russian-made cluster rocket in 2019. The date, explains Amnesty in a thread on twitterindicates that the bomb was manufactured after Russia stopped selling these weapons to Ukraine.
“The laws of war do not prevent war, but allow it by defining how it should be done and how it should not be done,” explains Nisha Saha, associate professor of International Relations at the University of Ottawa. Death in the warlike context is taken for granted, she details it in an academic article published in The Conversation.
If these attacks, or the documented bombings of March 1 and 2 in Bordyanka, a war crime is something “easy to prove”, the professor of International Politics at King’s College London, Jonathan Leader Maynard, explains to DatosRTVE. “All the evidence that demonstrates war crimes directly -such as selective assassinations or violations of civilians- will be relevant”, points out the academic, who recalls thate these types of events only require individual tests that place them outside the limits of the Geneva Conventions and International Humanitarian Law.
Bombs that do not distinguish between military and civilians
A cluster bomb is a type of ammunition that can be launched from the air or from the ground, characterized in that inside contains tens to thousands of smaller explosives designed to disperse and explode with delayed effect. They are capable of covering large areas of ground, but act indiscriminately. Many countries consider them illegal because they violate the civil space protections enshrined in the Geneva Conventions.
The same cluster bomb can incorporate different types of submunitions: from incendiary bombswith white phosphorus or napalm, to anti-personnel fragmentation explosives, designed to attack enemy troops. Also exist anti tank ammunitionto destroy military vehicles; antielectric, whose objective is the electrical supply systems; or other designed to launch propaganda, chemical attacks or to mine territories from the air.
The use of these weapons falls within the framework of international humanitarian law, but was not specifically regulated until 2008, when a specific agreement was signed.
For Amnesty International’s weapons expert, Alberto Estévez, it is necessary to redouble efforts to incorporate the great powers into these agreements absent military. This debate “has taken a backseat on the agenda of the authorities and governments, but not for civil society, which continues to maintain pressure,” he says in conversation with DatosRTVE.
The case of the United States stands out, continues Estévez, where there are internal pressures for Joe Biden to adhere to this agreement after decades of inability or inaction. However, Washington argues that it continues to use cluster bombs for “military needs”ranging from open war conflicts to the threat of countries such as North Korea
Chemical weapons: an invisible threat
kyiv accused Moscow of launching a suspected chemical attack on Mariupol, in southeastern Ukraine, on April 11. Although, at the moment there is no evidence that this happened, some experts believe that the Kremlin still has chemical weapons despite having signed against their use. The suspicion of Russia is made permanent after at least two accusations of attempted murder for political reasons with a chemical weapon in recent years.
In 2018, the government of Vladimir Putin was blamed for trying to poison former spy Sergei Skripal, while Alexei Navalny survived a similar attack in 2020. As pointed out in an article by the professor and member of the Non-Proliferation and Terrorism Studies Program of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, Jeffrey William Knopf, in both cases Novichock was used, a substance developed by the USSR in the final stretch of the Cold War, which Moscow has never admitted possessing.
The threat of chemical weapons is a ghost present in all wars that seems to be under control since the 90s the last century. Although they were first banned in the 1925 Geneva Protocol, after they were used by almost all countries involved in World War I, they were not listed as weapons of mass destruction until 1946.
However the 1988 Halabja attack during the Iran–Iraq War made it clear that the international ban had not been successful. Thus, in 1992 the creation of the Convention on the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weaponswhich entered into force in 1997 with a broad international consensus and has so far been signed by 194 countries.
According to this document, the use of the pharmacological effects of any chemical substance to achieve military objectives makes this compound a chemical weapon. Each country is responsible for the destruction of its own arsenal and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is in charge of monitoring their ccompliance. Until now 99% of the entire declared chemical stockpile has been eliminated, including all such weapons in Russia’s possession.
What types of chemical weapons exist?
The OPCW categorizes chemical weapons into four groups, based on the damage they cause to the body. The first is that of the pulmonary agents, capable of limiting respiration. The second is formed by vesicant substances than causing wounds, blisters or blindness. The blood agents form the third group and the fourth is that of the nerve gaseswhich cause the subject to lose control of their bodily functions.
How to judge an attack with prohibited weapons
Whether the attack is carried out with a cluster bomb or chemical weapons, for organizations such as Amnesty International it is essential that the eye of the international community be on the conflict. “Beyond the complaints made by civil society, [lo importante] it is the work that the organizations of the international instruments can do,” explains the arms expert Alberto Estévez, who calls for more resources and political will from the states that are part of the international treaties.
In this sense, Estévez gives as an example the investigations carried out by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPAQ) in the war in Syria. This international organization began to work in the country after it ratified the convention on this type of weapon and its work has served to delve into some of the 349 complaints compiled by the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin between 2019 and 2019.
In the war in Ukraine, Alberto Estévez considers that the possibility of that possible crimes are judged will depend to a large extent on the will of the states to allocate resources and shorten deadlines. Also that of those affected.
“In the case of Russia, it would have to change things within the country and there would have to be a government that would allow investigations in the medium term,” explains Estévez. As for Ukraine, the Amnesty International expert recalls that the fact that it allowed international investigations in 2015 today keeps the door open to observation of the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) even though the country is not part of it.
Be it this way or another, whether the guilty are judged depends on the collaboration of the states with the court, agrees Jonathan Leader Maynard. But Russia would have to hand over Putin for a high-level trial. And that, reflects the professor at King’s College London, is “highly unlikely.”
A trial of Putin for war crimes would only be conceivable for experts if the Russian president were to be deposed, but even if this were to happen, they doubt that a new government would dare bring the former president to international justice. “At most an internal trial would be made”regrets Leader Maynard, who, moreover, recalls that the law obliges both Russia and Ukraine to try their soldiers and officers if there is credible evidence of war crimes.
Alberto Estevez points out that the creation of a specific court for this war is also on the tableBut he thinks the investigation could take years. Until that moment arrives, Amnesty International calls for a determination against these crimes by the international community. “If there is no threat to hold accountable those responsible, the perpetrators of these crimes will continue to roam freely,” Estevez says.
How long does it take to investigate a war crime?
After his analysis, the IIT corroborates the existence of chemical weapons in this period of the Syrian war, but declares itself unable to reconstruct the chain of command that ordered this attack. Without holding any of the factions involved in the conflict responsible, the OPCW points out that the investigation indicates that the use of chlorine as a weapon was delegated to lower ranks, which does not exempt their superiors from responsibility.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.