Why War Crimes Charges Over Ukraine Face High Hurdles

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The evidence of apparent atrocities in Ukraine, with civilians executed in the suburbs of Kyiv, brings to mind another European horror: the bloody Balkan wars of the 1990s and the sometimes fraught, yearslong effort to bring those responsible to justice.

In 1999, Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Yugoslavia and the architect of a decade of war that took more than 200,000 lives and tore the country apart, became the first sitting head of state to be charged with war crimes. Three years later, he became the first former head of state to stand trial for genocide for the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as for crimes against humanity and violations of the Geneva Conventions for the wars in Croatia and Kosovo.

Recalling the significance of the trial, Human Rights Watch, the advocacy group, observed in a 2006 report that bringing the former president before an international criminal tribunal “marked the end of the era when being a head of state meant immunity from prosecution.”

Since then, it noted, other former heads of state, including the former Liberian prime minister Charles Taylor and the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, have been brought to justice.

Mr. Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in prison for his role in atrocities committed during Sierra Leone’s civil war in the 1990s. Mr. Hussein was convicted in 2006 by an Iraqi special tribunal for crimes against humanity for the brutal repression of a Shiite town in the 1980s and sentenced to death by hanging.

Mr. Milosevic died in his prison cell in The Hague in 2006, denying his victims the closure of a final judgment, but the public airing of his heinous crimes was nevertheless an important moral and legal reckoning.

While the circumstances in Ukraine and the Balkan wars differ in fundamental ways, including the scope and scale of the bloodshed, some parallels jump out — not least of which is Russia’s obfuscation and denial. In the face of graphic evidence that Ukrainian civilians in the suburb of Bucha, some with hands bound, were killed by Russian soldiers, Moscow has claimed it is all a “hoax.”

Mr. Milosevic, too, responded with a fanciful conspiracy theory when he was accused of complicity in the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica, in Bosnia, during which some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed, many with their hands tied behind their backs. He said the people really responsible for the worst bloodbath in Europe since World War II were French intelligence operatives, Muslim officials from Bosnia and mercenaries.

The wartime massacre of civilians at a Sarajevo market was not done by Serbs but staged by Muslims with bodies from a morgue, he claimed.

“It is all lies,” he said, as his trial began.

Whatever the echoes, legal experts say that bringing the Kremlin to account would be far more difficult than it was with Mr. Milosevic.

In the first place, no sitting president has ever been handed over to an international court. While President Vladimir V. Putin has significant public support and leads a nuclear power, Mr. Milosevic had already been ousted from power by the time he was sent to The Hague in June 2001.

And Russia is not Serbia.

Mr. Putin is an authoritarian leader with vociferous antagonism toward the West and its legal structures.

Russia-Ukraine War: Key DevelopmentsCard 1 of 4

U.N. meeting. President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine addressed the United Nations Security Council, detailing the horrors he saw in Bucha, the Kyiv suburb where Russian troops have been accused of killing civilians, and laying out a powerful indictment of the U.N.’s failure to prevent the invasion.

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