A ukrainian flag on a flag pole next to an abandoned jeep in an area with dead trees and a gray sky
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Professor says war crimes investigation in Ukraine could take years

“It’s critical to find both the physical, testimonial, and the documentary evidence of war crimes,” said Tal Simmons, who has examined evidence at multiple scenes, including in Sri Lanka and the former Yugoslavia.

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Tal Simmons, Ph.D., understands the challenges of researching and prosecuting potential war crimes in Ukraine by Russian troops.

Throughout her career, Simmons, a professor in the Department of Forensic Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University, has helped investigate war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka and other places. She has examined and documented evidence at multiple scenes, helping to gather enough to begin criminal proceedings.

Simmons said Ukraine is different from other war crime investigations. Often, places where war crimes have taken place are unknown to the outside world. That is not the case in Ukraine, where the media has reported on potential war crimes in Bucha and other areas.

“The difficulty of the current situation is that it is very public, and the media attention and the information flow volume is enormous,” Simmons said. “I know from the work that I do with various human rights and humanitarian nongovernment organizations that they are struggling to stay afloat with the flow of information. It’s really hard to keep up.”

That was not the case with other major atrocities. An estimated 400,000 to 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda during its civil war. Simmons said hardly any of the victims were formally and positively identified, unlike the former Yugoslavia where widespread DNA testing was conducted.

Coordinating the effort

Simmons has been in contact with several nongovernmental organizations that are planning to investigate war crimes in Ukraine. A mandate for the investigation has already been established in the International Criminal Court, which prosecuted Slobodan Miloševic, the former president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and others for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia.

Simmons said one lesson learned in the former Yugoslavia was coordination. During the investigation, multiple groups often interviewed the same people. These were people who had experienced atrocities, and the multiple interviews made them relive the experiences. She believes “a good faith effort” is being made not to repeat the situation.

“One of the things you must do when you investigate is that you have to interview survivors and witnesses,” Simmons said. “And if the tasks of investigation are not divided properly, you risk retraumatizing people when multiple people and multiple groups come and talk to them. They are all asking the same thing. Every time they are asking them, they are reliving the trauma.”

Besides the interviews, investigators will have to uncover documented evidence. Simmons said armies are good about chain of command and documenting orders. Investigators will want to locate documents from the Russian army to determine who might be culpable if war crimes occurred. Simmons said that happened in the former Yugoslavia, where investigators found evidence to prosecute the top political and military leaders.

“It’s critical to find the documentary evidence of war crimes,” Simmons said.

Simmons warned, however, that war crime investigations can take years. The Yugoslavian war took place in the 1990s, but the prosecution of army and political leaders occurred decades later. Part of the challenge was arresting the individuals. That was not the case, however, with a Russian soldier who was recently arrested and tried for war crimes in Ukraine. He was captured inside Ukraine and has pleaded guilty in a Ukrainian court.

The International Criminal Court will conduct war crime trials, but Simmons said that is only if a country is unable, or unwilling, to conduct the prosecution.

“Ukraine has jurisdiction,” Simmons said. “They have an intact functioning judicial system.”

A PTSD moment

For Simmons, it has been hard to see the photographs and videos of possible war crimes in Ukraine. She has been on the ground and examined bodies that were part of other war crime investigations. She knows what people will see and experience when documenting the evidence.

“For me, this is a giant PTSD moment, because seeing all of these bodies makes me remember,” Simmons said. “I remember exactly what they looked like. I know what the clothes looked like. I know what specific injuries look like. I can also tell you what it will look like two years from now when the bodies have turned into skeletons.”

She recently talked with a former student who is working with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Colombia. The individual was a teenager in the former Yugoslavia and experienced war firsthand. It made a lasting impression, Simmons said. The former student said the Ukrainian war has brought up a lot of memories from his childhood.

Let the process play out

Simmons is confident that the people investigating will put aside personal feelings and conduct a proper investigation. But she warned that people need to be careful. A lot of people are declaring that what happened in Ukraine is genocide, but the crime has a very specific definition. It can be difficult to prove because it is based on intent.

“People need to be conscious of the terminology that they are using,” Simmons said. “It’s very common during conflicts like this that people throw around the ‘g’ word, and one of the main criteria for genocide is to prove intent. That is why it can be difficult to prove, because you have to have the paper trail documenting intent.”

She believes that enough documentary evidence exists to begin an investigation. While her heart tells her that war crimes occurred, as a scientist she has to be impartial. The situation is most likely a lot more complicated than a photograph taken by a journalist and a Ukrainian citizen. Crimes committed during war are challenging to prosecute. Some of the people accused of war crimes in the former Yugoslavia were acquitted.

Simmons is optimistic about the process and sees hope in a recent prosecution in Germany, using the principle of universal jurisdiction. An officer in the Syrian army was convicted of crimes in Syria. According to reports, the trial could serve as a blueprint for future war crime trials.