Observers of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitor the withdrawal of the Ukrainian forces near Bogdanivka village in the Donetsk region on November 9, 2019.

Observers of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitor the withdrawal of the Ukrainian forces near Bogdanivka village in the Donetsk region on November 9, 2019. AFP via Getty Images

US Pushing Monitoring Body to Extend Russian War-Crimes Inquest

The OSCE already did one fact-finding mission in March; U.S. diplomats are whipping up support for another.

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia—The United States is working to persuade fellow members of Europe’s largest multinational security organization to gather more evidence of alleged Russian war crimes in Ukraine, a U.S. diplomat said Thursday. 

The proposed fact-finding mission by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE, would follow a similar one in March. It could help international prosecutors launch cases against Russian officials, said Mike Carpenter, U.S. ambassador to OSCE.

“We're getting ready to deploy another fact-finding mission precisely to look at evidence of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity because I think we're getting to that level now,” Carpenter said in an interview at the U.S. consulate in Vienna, Austria.

Since the 1990s, the 57-member organization has helped Ukraine develop institutions of democratic governance. From 2014 until Russia’s invasion in February, it monitored Ukrainian and Russian forces along their border for violations of the Minsk II ceasefire agreements.

In contrast to the latter mission, which involved hundreds of monitors deployed across Ukraine, many in armored vehicles, the proposed fact-finding effort would be “a small team of experts,” Carpenter said. 

“Think of them as investigators, with detailed knowledge of international humanitarian law and international human rights law,” he said. The team would “conduct interviews with eyewitnesses, look at the evidence, put forensic experts on the ground, to be able to evaluate the evidence and then compile it all into a report that will be publicly available.”

The mission might seek information about possible crimes in the destroyed city of Mariupol, and from Red Cross teams that are helping people to evacuate. 

But the timing and scope of the proposed mission is not yet settled, Carpenter said. 

“We just have to line up the states to support it. We want to gather as many like-minded participating states here at the OSCE as we can to support this mission itself. This is also about the diplomacy and the political support for accountability,” he said. 

It would be OSCE’s second fact-finding mission in Ukraine this year. The first was approved through a special mechanism that allowed the organization to bypass a Russian veto. An OSCE member, Russia didn’t participate in the previous fact-finding mission, which launched in March, and Carpenter said he didn’t expect Russia would participate in the new one, either, but that they would be asked. 

Of course, it can be hard to gather evidence of war crimes while that war still rages. And according to Olga Stefanishyna, the Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine, Russia worked to block the previous fact-finding mission and went to great lengths to hide and destroy evidence of crimes. 

“What I can confirm: shortly after the crimes in Kiev region became public, they started to collect those bodies around Mariupol and put them in massive graves, probably also burning,” she said on Thursday, speaking to Defense One at the Globsec conference here. “We managed to identify quite a number of massive graves. According to our information, more than 20,000 people died there either from the bullets or from hunger.”

Stefanishyna said she didn’t have much information on the proposed second fact-finding mission.