The war in Ukraine: Dutch support for investigations into war crimes
Since 24 February 2022, we have seen large-scale human rights violations in Ukraine: murders, sexual violence and the destruction of homes and hospitals. These war crimes cannot be allowed to go unpunished. That is why the Netherlands has been offering support to Ukraine, for an example by sending a forensic investigation team to Kyiv.
It is important for victims of the war in Ukraine and their next of kin to establish the truth and obtain justice. For these purposes, it is vital to have sound evidence that can be used in court and in investigations. In response to a request from Ukraine, the Netherlands sent a forensic investigation team to Kyiv to assist the local authorities.
Ruined houses and burnt-out buildings
The consequences of the war were clearly evident in Ukraine, according to Bela Kubat. As a forensic pathologist, Bela works to establish the cause of death and the identity of deceased persons. ‘Everywhere you looked you could see ruined houses and burnt-out buildings, and these houses were not even close to military targets – they were in residential areas.’
Bela stresses the importance of making this kind of war crime visible. ‘The people of the world have agreed that war crimes are forbidden. If I can play a role in exposing and prosecuting such acts, then I want to do that. It’s what I am trained to do as a forensic pathologist and I see it as my duty to help.’
Operating under the banner of the International Criminal Court, around 30 Dutch specialists travelled to Kyiv. Besides Bela, the team included detectives from the Royal Military and Border Police (KMAR), medical personnel, an interpreter and a team from the Special Security Operations Brigade.
‘The multidisciplinary team gave us a lot of advantages’, says Bela. ‘You never know what you’re going to encounter in a war zone. It’s great to have an expert at hand. For example, we found pieces of metal at a crime scene. In such cases, you want to know: is this relevant to our investigation? Are they from a bomb or a missile? To find out, you need to be able to recognise things and that’s not always easy. Because we had the team there, we were able to ask an explosive ordnance disposal expert right away.’
In Kyiv, Bela was mainly observing her Ukrainian colleagues, checking on behalf of the International Criminal Court that the local authorities’ investigations are aligned with international standards. All findings that are used in criminal proceedings at the International Criminal Court must meet certain quality safeguards. These rules enable all cases to be handled in the same way. ‘Everything was being done properly, so I was able to report back that the findings can be safely used.’
The team of investigators also gathered evidence on site and digital information via cameras and computers. ‘I looked at items that could be significant. For example, food supplies: what did people eat, what medicines did they have?’
The International Criminal Court
Never before has the International Criminal Court (ICC) sent out an investigative team of this size. The speed at which the team was able to gather evidence is very important, as it means the evidence will be viewed in court as more reliable and genuine. On the team’s return to the Netherlands, the findings were presented to the ICC in The Hague. The evidence collected is intended to show whether it is possible to try the perpetrators.
Bela hopes that this mission can serve as a blueprint for the future, so that such investigations can be initiated in this way more often. That should assist efforts to avoid impunity and ensure that justice is done for the victims. It should also deter the commission of further serious international crimes.
There are other ways too that the Netherlands is involved in fighting impunity and investigating war crimes in Ukraine. For example the Netherlands is providing financial support to the ICC and has backed the establishment of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, which is focused on evidence gathering.
In addition, on 14 July 2022 the Netherlands hosted the Ukraine Accountability Conference, which was specifically aimed at international cooperation in the area of fact-finding and justice. During the conference Wopke Hoekstra, Minister of Foreign Affairs, announced that the Netherlands will be providing extra financial support to the ICC and the UN Human Rights Office in Ukraine. Mr Hoekstra also pledged extra funding for psychosocial help for victims of sexual violence.
I could feel in my whole body just how fragile our freedom actually is.
Bella believes that the mission to Ukraine confirmed that freedom cannot be taken for granted. ‘When we left Ukraine we stopped just over the border in a beautiful part of the Polish countryside. Imagine it: you're sitting there and looking around you, you've just come out of a war zone full of ruined houses and burnt-out buildings. You know that you no longer have to take refuge in an air-raid shelter. But you also know that bombs could still fall 80 kilometres down the road in Lviv. I could feel in my whole body just how fragile our freedom actually is.’
|Bela Kubat was a guest during the morning talk show at the Ukraine Accountability Conference in the World Forum, The Hague (14 July 2022). Watch the talk show on YouTube.|