Designated Munich Security Conference Chairman Christoph Heusgen speaks at the end of the Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Munich, southern Germany, on February 20, 2022.

Designated Munich Security Conference Chairman Christoph Heusgen speaks at the end of the Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Munich, southern Germany, on February 20, 2022. AFP via Getty Images / Thomas KIENZLE

World Leaders Expected to Push for Ukraine War Crimes Trials at Munich Security Conference

“How do we get them in front of courts?” says the German ambassador who leads the annual event.

World leaders are expected to make a collective push for international efforts to prosecute the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Ukraine war when they gather at the Munich Security Conference in February.

This will be “high on the agenda” and not just for the conflict in Ukraine, said Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, who chairs the annual event in Germany.

“We have seen [Russia’s Vladimir Putin] responsible for tens if not [one] hundred thousand deaths, 40 million people have had to flee; we see what has happened in Ethiopia during the last year, 600,000 deaths; we see the conflict in Yemen continues,” Heusgen said in an interview. “I think we need to focus more on accountability, that the people responsible for the atrocities, for committing war crimes, crimes against humanity, that we see—how do we get them, you know, in front of courts? And this theme of accountability, in the country of the Nuremberg trial is the right place to do that. So I want to put the subject ‘how to prevent impunity’ high on the agenda.”

Russia launched its invasion just four days after the last Munich conference, at which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made an unsuccessful last-ditch appeal to Moscow. It was Zelenskyy’s last appearance outside of Ukraine, and he has pledged to return to Munich if the war is over by the next gathering. 

“I have my doubts, but we have to support him and this will be on the agenda,” as well, Heusgen said. 

In recent weeks, Ukrainian leaders and activists in North America have called for war tribunals and legal consequences—more so, it seems, than their Western patrons. It’s a concern close to the hearts of the victims of Putin’s invasion force of professional troops, conscripts, and lawless mercenaries. 

International trials historically have received a mixed reception in American politics. The United States is not among the 123 countries that are party to the two-decade-old International Criminal Court. But opposition appears to have faded over the past decade. And this year, the Biden administration and several dozen Republican lawmakers have expressed support for giving the ICC jurisdiction over war crimes in Ukraine.

In October at the Pentagon, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said, “In the past few days, Russia has increased their strikes on civilian infrastructure, power generation, and dams.  Russia has deliberately struck civilian infrastructure with the purpose of harming civilians. They have targeted the elderly, the women and the children of Ukraine. Indiscriminate and deliberate attacks on civilian targets is a war crime in the international rules of war.” 

In November, the State Department’s war crimes envoy held an online press conference to make what sounded like a case against Russia’s top leadership. 

“We have mounting evidence that this aggression has been accompanied by systemic war crimes committed in every region where Russia's forces have been deployed," said Beth Van Schaack, U.S. ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice. “There are legal doctrines that are available to hold Putin responsible.”

Asked whether the United States would support a role for the International Criminal Court, Schaack said, “The U.S. is fully committed to ensuring accountability for atrocities committed in Ukraine, and so we’re supporting a whole range of efforts to do that at the national and international level. This includes the investigation conducted by the International Criminal Court.” 

The U.S. has no law to prosecute Russians for crimes against Ukrainians, but it could go after Russians for crimes against U.S. citizens in Ukraine. Much of the work, she expects, would occur through Ukrainian courts after the war. 

“Ukraine, for example, has no crimes against humanity statute, and so if those charges are to be brought, they will have to be brought either in the International Criminal Court or in a foreign court that has jurisdiction over particular defendants.”

One expert called it a “remarkable shift” in U.S. views towards international law. 

For Heusgen, the pursuit of war-crimes trials is an extension of the awakening to security issues that Germans, Europeans, and Americans are experiencing because of Russia’s war in Ukraine. 

“It was a wake-up call for everybody,” he said. “Of course you have a tendency in people that they somehow want to go back in their comfort zone, so I think it’s very important to continue to have…your eyes on the ball.” 

The Munich Security Conference is hosting a tour of local and city town halls and media engagements, “just to make the point of how important it is that Germany has to step up to the plate.” 

In their 120-point “Transatlantic To Do List,” the organization's leaders list “Track Russian war crimes and seek accountability, including through the establishment of a Special Tribunal for Ukraine.”

Heusgen called it a historic change for Germany.

“We were the aggressors in the second world war, we were guilty for the Holocaust, and there is in Germany for many generations the feeling now that never again should war emanate from Germany.” 

In 2022, it became clear that perception put Germany, now the world’s fourth-largest economy, “too much in the back seat,” he said. 

The change is the meat of what Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz has now famously called Zeitenwende.

“We have to step up to the plate, we have to assume more responsibility. We have to now implement, and we must not only give these speeches and write articles but we have to do it in practice,” Heusgen said.