Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, has accused Russia of carrying out “atrocious war crimes” in Ukraine and called for a special tribunal to be formed to investigate and prosecute them.
Speaking to Al Jazeera on Tuesday at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos, von der Leyen said the Russian invasion of Ukraine “is an extraordinary situation and it needs strong reaction of the global community”.
“Because this is not only a fight for Ukraine of survival and defending its sovereignty and territory, but it is also a fight of democracy against autocracy and for the respect of the international law,” the top EU bureaucrat said.
“Therefore, we [the European Union] think this needs a special tribunal,” she said. “Russia cannot get away with what it’s done to the Ukrainian people.”
The government in Kyiv has demanded that a special international tribunal be set up to try Russian leaders over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
“We will not forgive a single [act of] torture or life taken. Each criminal will be held accountable,” Andriy Yermak, head of the Ukrainian presidential staff, said in Davos.
Ukraine said on Tuesday that 22 people were still missing after a Russian missile struck an apartment block in the city of Dnipro, killing at least 44 people. Saturday’s strike was one of the deadliest attacks since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly 11 months ago.
The Kremlin has denied its forces were responsible.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy promised to bring those responsible for the attack to justice, saying it is “a fundamental task” for Ukraine and its Western allies.
“This strike at Dnipro as well as other similar strikes fall in particular under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court,” Zelenskyy said in a video address late Monday.
“And we will use all available opportunities – both national and international – to ensure that all Russian murderers, everyone who gives and executes orders on missile terror against our people, face legal sentences and to ensure that they serve their punishment.”
‘Crimes of aggression’
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock also called on Monday for the establishment of a special international tribunal.
What is needed is a body to investigate “the Russian leadership and put them on trial”, said Baerbock in a keynote speech at the Academy of International Law in The Hague, where the International Criminal Court (ICC) is based.
The Ukrainian government is understandably concerned that Russia cannot be prosecuted for its aggression before the ICC, she said, as it may deal only with cases in which the plaintiff and the defendant are members of the court or a case is referred by the UN Security Council.
Russia is not a member of the court and, as one of the five world powers that are veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council, would likely block any referral to the ICC.
“We talked about working with Ukraine and our partners on the idea of setting up a special tribunal for crimes of aggression against Ukraine,” said Baerbock, adding that such a body could derive its jurisdiction from Ukrainian criminal law.
Moscow denies charges
Russia, which calls its actions in Ukraine a “special military operation”, has denied accusations of war crimes, including the deliberate targeting of Ukrainian civilians, thousands of whom have been killed.
ICC prosecutor Karim Khan, who held talks with Baerbock on Monday, has opposed a special tribunal for Ukraine.
He said in December that he should not be “set up to fail” by the creation of a special tribunal and urged the international community to focus on supporting his own investigation.
Von der Leyen said she had expected Moscow to be reasonable and not to invade Ukraine at the height of tensions a year ago.
“We had prepared massive sanctions” in case of a Russian invasion against Ukraine before it happened, she said.
“And we could not imagine that you destroy your own country, Russia, by doing this invasion,” the European Commission chief said.
Von der Leyen added: “The world is really impressed by the courage and the stamina of the Ukrainian people. They have been amazing through the year.”