Were war crimes committed in Ukraine? How Canada is assisting with the probe

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RCMP Cpl. Kate Walaszczyk honed her policing skills as a homicide investigator, painstakingly reconstructing crime scenes and gathering evidence.

She is turning that hard-earned know-how to the global stage, working with other countries to document war crimes and crimes against humanity in the unfolding conflict in Ukraine.

Canada is co-operating with partners abroad, including the International Criminal Court, to ensure perpetrators of heinous acts – from rape to mass killings – are held accountable.

The focus of the RCMP investigation, launched over a year ago, is collection and preservation of evidence of possible crimes for use in prosecutions, which might take place much later.

The Mounties have asked anyone with a Canadian connection who has information about potential war crimes to contact the force through a special web portal.

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The force is seeking information about acts of violence in Ukraine since Feb. 24, 2022, and in Crimea or the Donbas region since 2014 to assist the probe, conducted under the auspices of the federal War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity program.

The RCMP reviews and analyzes the shared information, sometimes following up with individuals to gather more details.

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The investigators publicized the effort through posters and brochures aimed at people arriving in Canada in the initial waves fleeing Ukraine last year, and met others face-to-face in community meetings.

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However, some people need time to deal with more immediate concerns and process their experiences before coming forward, Walaszczyk said in an interview.

She would not provide details about the number of people who have contacted the Mounties. “But I can say that we’ve received a fairly large volume of information.”

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The collection effort continues and the team is looking to hear from those _ such as business people, students or even fighters in the war _ who have observations or digital evidence such as photos or video.

One hurdle is gaining the confidence of people from eastern Europe, where authorities were not always trusted in the Communist era. Walaszczyk, who is of Polish heritage, said she encountered a similar hesitance within her own family. “I remember my mother struggling with me becoming a police officer for that same reason.”

The ubiquity of camera-equipped phones in the digital era means sifting through a lot of information and trying to ensure it is legitimate, she acknowledged. On the other hand, it can also make documenting an incident much easier.

“Can you imagine, you know, 100 different angles of the same thing? You cannot pretend that it did not happen.”

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She compares examining disparate pieces of information to assembling a puzzle, much like she would as a homicide investigator, but on a bigger scale. “You don’t know if it’s important till you actually see the final picture.”

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One element of the work is building chronologies that detail who was present in a given region of Ukraine at a particular time, information that can help investigators zero in on possible suspects.

Darryl Robinson, a Queen’s University law professor who helped develop Canada’s war crimes legislation, applauded the RCMP’s investigation effort.

It is one thing to interview witnesses and document their experiences, he said. “But the harder part is to prove who actually did it, who was the perpetrator who committed that crime, or even harder still, who ordered those crimes? Who was the supervisor?

“So for that, this kind of digital evidence is fantastic because it can help place specific people at specific locations. It’s by far the much more difficult part of an investigation.”

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One would assume that video and photographic evidence of such crimes is uncommon because perpetrators don’t collect evidence of their own misdeeds, Robinson said.

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“However, the experience of modern-day war crimes investigations is very much the opposite. It’s astonishing how much these soldiers will take videos and pictures of the crimes that they’re committing. For various reasons, they don’t see them as crimes or they have a very altered view of what’s going on.”

Last month the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin, alleging the unlawful deportation and transfer of Ukrainian children from occupied areas of Ukraine to Russia.

Canadian prosecutions for war crimes and crimes against humanity are quite rare, Robinson noted. In that vein, “the more likely benefit” from the RCMP initiative will be the assistance given to other bodies like the International Criminal Court or domestic Ukrainian prosecutors.

Walaszczyk points out there are “other avenues” than criminal prosecution for war crimes to deal with perpetrators in Canada. They include prosecution for immigration fraud, citizenship revocation, exclusion from refugee status, and extradition and surrender to an international tribunal.

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