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Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the government via teleconference in Moscow, on March 10.Mikhail Klimentyev/The Associated Press

Robert Rotberg is the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s program on intrastate conflict, a former senior fellow at CIGI and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation. His latest book is Things Come Together: Africans Achieving Greatness, and has also edited Mass Atrocity Crimes: Preventing Future Outrages.

The maternity and children’s hospital in the besieged port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, has been cratered by Russian missiles. On Saturday, Russian forces bombed a psychiatric hospital in Izyum. On Sunday, Russian and Belarusian missiles bombarded civilians close to Kyiv and Lviv. According to the World Health Organization, Russia has targeted at least 26 Ukrainian hospitals so far.

“Humanity has not yet invented a word for what Russia is doing to us,” said a mayoral official in Mariupol.

But multilateral institutions have provided some language around the deliberate targeting and destruction of civilian populations, the willful killing of non-combatants, the causing of suffering among the same population, the destruction and seizure of property and one or more violations of the laws of war.

These are called war crimes, or crimes against humanity, and they have been defined as such since the 1907 Hague Convention and the more modern establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) by the Rome Statute in 1998. Indeed, Article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention is specific on the matter: “Willful killings,” “willfully causing great suffering” and “the extensive destruction” of property are all war crimes.

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The attacks in Ukraine represent compelling evidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin has perpetrated war crimes there. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has called what Mr. Putin is doing to his country “state terrorism.” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested in a CNN interview last week that there were credible reports that Russia was committing the war crime of targeting civilians, and U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris made similar accusations in Poland on March 10.

An individual and a leader may be held responsible for the actions of a nation’s armed forces and, as such, Mr. Putin should be indicted now and prosecuted as soon as the upholders of world order and decency can bring him to book. For his part, Karim Khan – the chief prosecutor of the ICC – has already announced that he has opened an investigation into Mr. Putin’s alleged war crimes in Ukraine.

This follows another investigation into Mr. Putin’s abuse of the laws of war, which started four years ago, well after his illegal annexation of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine. At the time, its then-chief prosecutor believed that torture, rape and the intentional targeting of civilians had occurred in 2014, and that Mr. Putin should be held accountable.

But the novel coronavirus pandemic made detailed examinations of the alleged infractions difficult to pursue. Now, as Mr. Putin’s troops attempt to reduce Ukraine to rubble and reportedly prevent civilians from fleeing, launching a vicious war can be added to that list of earlier alleged depredations.

Mr. Putin also appears to be engaging in genocide, as defined by the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide to which the Soviet Union adhered. Article II of the Convention prohibits “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such,” and the actual killing of members of a group and the deliberate infliction on a group of “conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or part.”

In other words, genocide is the intent and commission of acts of extirpation against whole peoples (or parts thereof). As ethnic cleansing appears to be occurring in Ukraine, that amplifies the evidence of genocidal war crimes that are being felt directly by the brave Ukrainians combating Russian invaders and the millions who have been compelled to flee war.

Meanwhile, the Russian army and air force have employed cluster bombs in Kharkiv and elsewhere in Ukraine, meaning that Mr. Putin’s government has also ignored the Convention on Cluster Munitions, signed by 110 nations in 2008 (but not Russia). Canada is a signatory and should now bring charges.

The ICC may some day be able to indict Mr. Putin for his crimes, but the question of how he should be held to account will depend on the actions of Russian security and military elites as much as it does on Western defenders of freedom. At the very least, publicly denouncing his war crimes and his responsibility for unspeakable genocidal acts can put him before the court of public opinion, warn his co-conspirators so that they defect, and possibly deter further horrific mayhem.

The Nuremberg trials after the Second World War effectively did away with the idea that perpetrators can act with impunity – so let us prepare for a new Nuremberg.

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