How prosecuting war crimes in Ukraine compares to hunting Nazis: NPR

Smoke rises in the air after the bombing of Odessa, Ukraine.

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Nina Lyashonok/AP


Smoke rises in the air after the bombing of Odessa, Ukraine.

Nina Lyashonok/AP

There are startling and distressing similarities between Nazi war crimes during World War II and what is happening in Ukraine right now as Russia continues its violent onslaught, according to Justice Department official Eli Rosenbaum.

Rosenbaum is best known for leading the Justice Department unit that tracked down Nazis in hiding long after World War II. And last month, Attorney General Merrick Garland hired him to lead a team investigating atrocities in Ukraine.

The law allows Rosenbaum’s team to investigate only the relatively rare war crimes cases involving U.S. nationals in Ukraine, but his team will share information with war crimes investigators from dozens of other countries. .

Rosenbaum spoke with All things Considered on the War Crimes Accountability Group, and shared the process of his work as well as his optimism about justice being served.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

On what kind of evidence is needed to prove a war crimes case

These are difficult investigations. I believe that the work we have done for many years in this space has prepared us well for this urgent mission. There will be all kinds of evidence.

What we probably won’t have much of is the kind of evidence we had in Nazi cases, which was mostly captured Nazi documents. We won’t have many documents, mainly because nothing is reduced to writing on paper anymore. On the other hand, there are electronic communications and the various governments have advanced capabilities to intercept and analyze these communications, as well as their advanced investigative techniques that could not be deployed in Nazi affairs, such as the DNA analysis and geofencing.

On how various countries work and come together to investigate war crimes

Coordination is essential. We work hard to eliminate conflict, as they say, and avoid duplication of effort. This was one of the main reasons why the rally was to be held under the sponsorship of the Dutch government, the ICC and the European Commission.

Basically, the Ukrainian authorities will be in the best position, most likely to help us coordinate and resolve conflicts, and we will be able to do that.

A view of a damaged building, believed to have been hit by a recent bombardment in Kharkiv.

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A view of a damaged building, believed to have been hit by a recent bombardment in Kharkiv.

Sergei Bobok/AFP via Getty Images

On the difficulty of gathering evidence and prosecuting cases in ongoing war zones

The fact that the war is still ongoing obviously also brings new challenges. But that does not prevent us from carrying out competent investigations. So fundamentally, this new mission is a continuation of what my colleagues and I had the privilege of being part of for many years in the United States Department of Justice.

The work aims to obtain a measure of justice on behalf of the victims. In the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the offenses continue and the crime scenes, in some cases, will be difficult to reach or even impossible for some time.

But the fact that the crimes are continuing means that these cases are of the utmost urgency. And there is that perennial fantasy of all prosecutors that timely law enforcement accountability efforts have the potential to deter at least some people from engaging or continuing to engage in horrendous crimes.

On the possibility of justice after war crimes in Ukraine

I am hopeful that justice will be done. It doesn’t always happen right away. There are countless examples of perpetrators of atrocities, even leading figures in a government like [former President of Serbia] Slobodan Milošević brought to the bar of justice. It takes time.

But I’m optimistic that what Attorney General Garland said when we were together in Ukraine last month will be the reality in these cases. He said: “There is no hiding place for war criminals.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a joint press conference with his Iranian and Turkish counterparts after their summit in Tehran in July.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a joint press conference with his Iranian and Turkish counterparts after their summit in Tehran in July.

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On Vladimir Putin saying this invasion of Ukraine is an effort to denazify the country

When I hear that, for me, it’s like a thousand nails on a blackboard. It’s cruel. It’s wrong. It’s not a Nazi government by any stretch of the imagination. I think after almost 40 years of investigating and prosecuting Nazi perpetrators, I know a Nazi when I see one. This is yet another outrage from the Kremlin.

This interview was adapted for the web by Manuela Lopez Restrepo.

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