RCMP investigates reports of “heinous” war crimes in Ukraine

Numbered crosses at a mass grave in the city of Izium, Kharkiv region, Ukraine, on September 16, 2022. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters - photo credit)

Numbered crosses at a mass grave in the city of Izium, Kharkiv region, Ukraine, on September 16, 2022. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters – photo credit)

The RCMP says it is investigating serious allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity arising from Russia’s war on Ukraine – but warns it could take years to bring cases to indictment.

“We’re really trying to manage expectations to say that this can be quite a process to investigate,” said Cpl. Kate Walaszczyk, an investigator with the RCMP’s Ukraine War Crimes Unit.

“This may take some time.”

Walaszczyk’s team is conducting a so-called structural investigation under the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act. It’s a Canadian law that punishes genocide, crimes against humanity and a host of other war crimes.

Passed in 2000, it replaced an earlier law targeting Nazi war criminals. It allows the RCMP to prosecute a person in Canada even if the offenses in question were committed outside Canadian territory.

The RCMP has asked witnesses to come forward by putting up electronic signs at airports, advertising online and distributing leaflets. Walaszczyk and her team have courted community groups; She said she received a “positive” response.

The RCMP asks refugees from the region to fill out a questionnaire detailing various examples of war crimes, from torture and sexual assault to the use of chemical weapons and attacks on hospitals and schools.

Walaszczyk said she could not delve into the details of her open files. “The allegations made in the international media are being investigated,” she said.

“These acts are abominable.”

Walaszczyk said the goal in this first year of investigation is to preserve evidence, including physical and digital evidence, and collect victims’ stories.

“Let’s say a conflict ends. Individuals come forward on these allegations years later, and then evidence is lost. Memories get lost, all those things get lost,” she said.

“We need it robust so there aren’t any gaps… If you don’t do your job properly, if you don’t collect the evidence properly, these things fall apart. And what’s the point then?”

Canada often prefers deportation: expert

Mark Kersten, an adviser to the Wayamo Foundation, an international justice advocacy group, said the RCMP may never prosecute the people behind Ukraine’s war crimes.

“It’s very unlikely that a bombing victim or a witness to a bombing or any type of attack would have any information that would say, ‘I actually saw the guy who flew the plane,’ let alone the person who put her on the plane giving him orders,” he said.

“So from those interviews, Canada would know what happened where, and they would get a sense of the structure of the crime, without necessarily knowing who is in charge and ultimately responsible for those things.”

There were only two trials under the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act. The first to be charged was Désiré Munyaneza, a Toronto-based Rwandan refugee who was jailed in 2009 for his involvement in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Jacques Mungwarere, also a Rwandan refugee, has been charged after he was accused of involvement in a massacre of Tutsi at a hospital in the Kibuye region.

In 2013, Mungwarere was acquitted after Ontario Superior Court Judge Michel Charbonneau ruled that the defense had raised reasonable doubts.

Since then, Kersten said, Canada has preferred to deal with war criminals through deportation.

“We do not do this with any guarantee that they will be prosecuted wherever they are sent. We’re just washing our hands on this matter,” he said.

“I don’t think the government has shown any interest in reviving this possibility of prosecuting…foreign war criminals in Canadian courts.”

It’s a stance he hopes the Liberal government will change as demands mount to hold Russian perpetrators accountable.

“[Ottawa] has not changed its official policy, which is that its final preference in dealing with war criminals is to prosecute them in Canadian courts,” he said.

“Come out and say, ‘See if a perpetrator of international crimes is from Ukraine or [a] If a Russian perpetrator enters Canadian territory, we will have no hesitation in using our court system to investigate and prosecute.”

The US says Russia has committed crimes against humanity

Politicians have used increasingly explicit language to denounce Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression.

Earlier this month, US Vice President Kamala Harris said there was “no doubt” that Russia committed crimes against humanity during its war against Ukraine. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said Putin and his regime had committed “absolutely reprehensible war crimes”.

Walaszczyk said that as an investigator, she needed to focus on the facts in front of her.

Vadim Savitsky/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Vadim Savitsky/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

“What I focus on is your observations, your first-hand accounts of what you’ve seen, and I can work with that,” she said.

The RCMP also shares information with other nations to help them in their own investigations and to ensure victims’ trauma and PTSD are taken into account.

“We’ve learned over time that, say, a victim comes forward in one country and a statement is made, and then another nation state is interested in speaking to that victim – they just get traumatized again and again traumatized and traumatized again,” Walaszczyk said.

“So the nature of it is, here we have this repository of information, multiple nation states want to talk to one person. Now we have the opportunity to do this together and do it once and do it well.”

Last year, the RCMP sent officers to work with the International Criminal Court (ICC) to help investigate complaints.

Kersten, also a senior researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, said this too will take time.

“You’re not likely to see anybody being investigated or prosecuted in Canada or at the ICC any time soon,” he said.

“But it just has to be ready in case someone does something stupid. For example, someone is visiting the wrong country at the wrong time.”


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