The bodies of civilians lie on a street in Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, on April 2 after Russian forces retreated.
PRAGUE -- Russia will be held accountable for war crimes and violations of international law allegedly committed by its forces in Ukraine, a European Union official vowed, amid mounting Ukrainian and international efforts to gather evidence for future criminal investigations.
In an interview with RFE/RL at its headquarters in Prague, Eamon Gilmore, the EU special representative for human rights, also suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin might be put on trial one day, not unlike what happened with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic after the bloody and violent breakup of Yugoslavia.
“Milosevic never thought he would face a court or face a tribunal in The Hague when he was committing war crimes," Gilmore said in the interview, conducted on May 10.
"People who are responsible can be held to account no matter how long it takes," he said.
Ukrainian and international investigators have been rushing to interview witnesses, documents alleged crimes, and gather evidence of alleged Russian crimes for use in any future criminal proceedings.
In the wake of the withdrawal of Russian troops from districts north of Kyiv last month, officials have been looking at whether civilians were summarily killed or executed, as well as a growing body of evidence pointing to possible rape and sexual violence. Human Rights Watch, among other groups, has accused Russian troops of committing a "litany of apparent war crimes" in the town of Bucha, north of Kyiv, in early March, before withdrawing as the Kremlin redeployed units to concentrate its attack on southern and eastern Ukraine.
Subscribe To RFE/RL's Watchdog Report
RFE/RL's Watchdog report is a curated digest of human rights, media freedom, and democracy developments from our vast broadcast region. It arrives in your in-box every Thursday. Subscribe here .
"Bombing a hospital is a war crime. Bombing a school is a war crime. Bombing a children's nursery is a war crime. Targeting civilians. Those are war crimes," Gilmore said.
"There are investigations that are under way, in particular the investigation by the International Criminal Court. And there has to be accountability for what is happening these days in Ukraine, and what has been happening since February 24." Despite the rush for gathering evidence in Ukraine, investigators face an uphill battle in holding any Russian commanders, or political leaders, to account, or hauling them before an international tribunal. Russia is not a member of The Hague-based International Criminal Court nor a member of the European Union. It was kicked out of the Council of Europe days after invading Ukraine; prior to that, Moscow routinely ignored rulings of the European Court of Human Rights and even passed constitutional amendments that effectively forbid compliance with the court. Russia's veto power on the UN Security Council means any United Nations-led effort will likely be blocked. Four days after Russia invaded, the chief prosecutor of The Hague court, known as the ICC, announced the opening of a war crime probe in Ukraine, dating back to 2014 when war in the eastern Donbas region first broke out and regular Russian forces participated in at least two major battles there.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded, saying, "We categorically reject this."
Under the treaty rules of the ICC, Ukraine, which is a member of the court, can ask the court to take jurisdiction over any potential war crimes probe.
Still, Gilmore argued that time was no obstacle for bringing a criminal case, and he said modern technologies such as satellite imagery made it easier to document evidence. "So the idea that people who are either directly committing these crimes, or those who are responsible for giving the order and politically responsible for the war that is giving rise to them…all of that will eventually be investigated," he said.
Under the UN-created International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Milosevic became the first sitting head of state to be prosecuted for war crimes -- in his case, committed during the wars in the former Yugoslavia. He died in The Hague in 2006 before the court could render a verdict.
Asked about reports of Ukrainian troops committing possible war crimes, Gilmore suggested those would also be investigated, but he also downplayed the reports.
"Russia is the aggressor in Ukraine, let's never forget that. Ukraine didn't invade Russia. Russia invaded Ukraine. So I think we have to put that into perspective and avoid falling into the trap of alternative or parallel narratives being created," he said.