Russia Intentionally Starving Ukrainians as Method of Warfare—War Crimes Expert

Russia is intentionally starving Ukrainians as a method of warfare, an expert on war crimes told Newsweek.

Reported uses of cluster bombs and artillery strikes on civilian targets last week prompted the International Criminal Court's (ICC) chief prosecutor Karim Khan to launch an investigation into possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine.

Russia is "absolutely clearly" intentionally directing attacks against civilians, Michael Newton, a professor of the practice of law at Vanderbilt University, who previously served as the senior adviser to the Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, told Newsweek.

"They're doing it, in my view, to try to intimidate the population, to try to terrorize people. That's a war crime," he said. "The morale of the civilian population is never a legitimate military target."

Russia, like other U.N. nations, is subject to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which outlaw deliberate attacks on civilians.

Newton also pointed to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the the besieged port city of Mariupol, where attempts to evacuate civilians and deliver desperately-needed food, water and medicine through a safe corridor have failed. Ukrainian officials said Russian forces fired on a humanitarian convoy before it reached the city.

"The Russians bombed humanitarian convoys and humanitarian relief operations in Syria on a fairly regular basis," Newton said. "And they're doing the same thing now in Ukraine.

"On the one hand, it is intentionally directing attacks against civilians, but it's also getting very close to this notion in the Rome Statute and in customary law, intentionally using starvation as a method of warfare… The people of Mariupol are starving and that's a war crime."

He said: "It is absolutely unacceptable that the world sits back and allows humanitarian supplies and humanitarian convoys to be targeted with impunity. We cannot allow that to become the norm."

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the weekend that the U.S. has seen "very credible" reports of attacks in Ukraine that "would constitute a war crime."

"What we're doing right now is documenting all of this, putting it all together, looking at it and making sure that as people and the appropriate organizations and institutions investigate whether war crimes happened or are being committed, that we can support whatever they are doing," he said on CNN's State of the Union.

But Newton said the U.S. should act as the "world leader" in collecting evidence of war crimes committed in Ukraine.

He said the U.S. Senate should move to swiftly confirm President Joe Biden's nomination of Beth Van Schaack as the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice to help lead that effort.

"This is a no-brainer," he said. "If I were the president, I would make a speech and I would say this is not a time for normal politics and the United States must lead the world in the documentation and prosecution of war criminals."

Biden should also issue an executive order to coordinate efforts with the ICC to document war crimes, Newton said.

"The commander-in-chief has authority to use the clear provisions of U.S. law to assist the ICC," he said.

"I think we should be just upfront and honest and say we want to lead the world in documenting war crimes, and we will help any country that wants to prosecute because other countries do have jurisdiction."

The White House has been contacted for comment.

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A Ukrainian serviceman looks on
A Ukrainian serviceman looks on as evacuees cross a destroyed bridge as they flee the city of Irpin, northwest of Kyiv, on March 7, 2022. Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images