Investigating war crimes – then and now
The victims of Bucha have a greater chance of justice than the victims of the crimes committed during the Second World War
THERE are no comforts to be drawn from the revelations of torture, systematic rape, child abuse, murder, and pillage that have emerged from Bucha. Doubtless we shall be hearing of more horrors in the weeks and years to come, and there will be many more reports such as that recently produced by the peerless Dan Rivers of ITN News, which I urge you to watch. Warning: It is graphic.
What struck me while watching Rivers’ piece was the heavy presence of war crimes investigators and prosecutors at the site of the mass graves in the grounds of the church of Andrew the Apostle. Many of these men and women are from the International Criminal Court (ICC), and have been operating in Ukraine for well over a month. To be frank, nobody is in a position to judge whether the murderers will ever be brought to justice, but it is of course vital that evidence is collected no matter how unlikely it is that Putin will stand trial.
The investigators report to the ICC Prosecutor, Karim A.A. Khan QC, and they operate with utmost professionalism and are equipped with the best tools that forensic science can offer. Witnesses have a portal through which they can report war crimes and submit evidence, and a plethora of intelligence – both secret and open source – means that perpetrators are likely to be identified. Sadly, however, the ICC does have budgetary problems, not least because as of the middle of 2021, the court was owed more than €60 million in back payments from state members.
Despite the financial squeeze, the world of war crimes investigation is dramatically more sophisticated than it was in the aftermath of the Second World War. I wrote about the hunt for Nazi war criminals in my book Hunting Evil, and what I discovered about the lack of effectiveness of war crimes investigation appalled me, and gave lie to the words of the – now ironically named – Moscow Declaration of 1943 that boldly stated:
Let those who have hitherto not imbrued their hands with innocent blood beware lest they join the ranks of the guilty, for most assuredly the three Allied powers will pursue them to the uttermost ends of the earth and will deliver them to their accusers in order that justice may be done.
Many problems afflicted the war crimes units, and here, I shall just concentrate on those that affected the British.
Investigators were rarely professionally trained, and few had any background in detective work. They were often second-rate army officers who were placed in the units because they were not considered up to more frontline roles.
The units were started too late, and were poorly resourced. For evidence of this, I can do no better than cite the words of the war crimes teams’ leader, Lieutenant Colonel Ian Neilson, who told me when I interviewed him at his home in Marlborough in April 2009:
“If the War Crimes Unit had started in the early spring of 1945, I think we would have caught a lot more chaps – and witnesses’ memories would have been a lot better than they were. Generally speaking, the whole thing was on a shoestring, and all too often one felt, ‘Why on earth are we doing this?’ It was all too little, too late.”
The sheer volume of criminality was overwhelming. Running one manhunt uses up a lot of resources – now try running 100,000 manhunts, with antiquated cars and poor roads, offices with no heating in severely cold winters, and even a lack of typewriter ribbons and English-German dictionaries.
Data processing was in its very troubled infancy. In order to speed up the process, the Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects (CROWCASS) – which was responsible for drawing up the wanted lists – installed a Hollerith punch card machine in an office in Paris. It frequently overheated and broke down, and by the times the lists were produced, they were out of date, and never even reached the teams. As one British officer described CROWCASS, it was a ‘complete mess’. Again, the words of Ian Neilson say it all: “I’d never heard of CROWCASS. That’s a pity. It sounds like it might have been very helpful.”
There was little appetite for pursuing war criminals. At the end of a long global conflict, people wanted to move on. There was a mood that a few big fish should be brought to justice, but that many of the smaller fry – no matter how atrocious their crimes – were not worth bothering with. There was also a concern – expressed by no less a figure than Churchill – that continued investigation of Axis war crimes might cause the spotlight eventually to fall on those committed by the Allies.
The units were disbanded in August 1948, which was way too early. One of the investigators was Greville Janner, who told me when I interviewed him in the House of Lords in May 2007:
“I was really upset. We still had ten thousand people on our books. These were criminals, murderers, concentration camp guards – and they disbanded it because they wanted to concentrate on the Russians. It was just filthy politics.”
To be clear, Lord Janner was referring to the threats raised by the dawn of the Cold War when he spoke about concentrating on the Russians, because there were no investigations of Russian war crimes committed during the Second World War, or indeed those committed by the other Allied nations.
Today, we are investigating Russian war crimes. As I wrote, there are no comforts to be drawn from Bucha, but thankfully its victims have a better chance of receiving justice than those who were killed in the Second World War. Today’s investigators are in a much better position than the likes of Neilson and Janner, and this is why it is vital that the ICC immediately receives the money it is owed.
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