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Dr. Beth Van Schaack appears before a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing for her nomination to be Ambassador at Large for Global Criminal Justice, in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, on Jan. 12, 2022.CNP/Reuters

President Joe Biden’s envoy for the prevention and prosecution of war crimes says it’s likely going to take years before key Russian politicians and military leaders are brought to justice for atrocities committed against Ukraine.

Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice Beth Van Schaack’s office is responsible for advancing efforts around justice and accountability wherever atrocities have happened. Experts in Kyiv, she said, are helping with large strategic questions, such as how to prioritize tens of thousands of recorded incidents and how to properly gather evidence and prepare it for eventual prosecution.

Dr. Van Schaack spoke to The Globe and Mail in a phone interview while visiting Canada. She said she is meeting with officials, including war crimes prosecutors and investigators with the RCMP, and counterparts at Global Affairs Canada.

“Efforts by my office have very much focused on improving the ability and supporting the prosecutor general, who will be really the first line of justice,” she said, referring to the holder of the role in Ukraine, Andriy Kostin.

She said the International Criminal Court (ICC) is actively engaged and there may be cases that can be brought to courts around Europe, where defendants may travel, or if survivors are able to initiate cases: “There’s a whole ecosystem now focused on justice for atrocities in Ukraine.”

Holding Russian President Vladimir Putin accountable is a major challenge so long as he remains in Russia, she said. But individuals below him may decide to leave because of failures on the battlefield. Some may find themselves in the jurisdiction of a state that’s willing and able to prosecute them because it has evidence and because there are survivors who can identify them.

“Everyone in this field is playing a very long game, and so it may be years before the most senior leaders are eventually brought to justice,” Dr. Van Schaack said, pointing out that individuals such as Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet never thought they would see the inside of a courtroom, but eventually did.

Under the credible threat of legal consequences, some individuals below Mr. Putin could seek to avoid being associated with atrocities: “And so the hope is that they will engage in acts of either overt or covert resistance, that they might defect and then be willing to speak with prosecutors to help build cases against those most responsible.”

This week, Norwegian police detained a former commander of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group who recently fled to the country. Police denied suggestions he might be deported to Russia.

Dr. Van Schaack said justice is important on its own merits, for victims and survivors to see that a court will acknowledge what happened, the harm they experienced, and will rule in their favour when it comes to the violations of international law.

A number of countries have said they are willing to use their powers of universal jurisdiction – which varies from country to country – to investigate and prosecute an individual for crimes they’ve committed abroad, even when the alleged perpetrators and victims are not from that state, said Mark Kersten, an assistant professor at the University of the Fraser Valley and a consultant at the Wayamo Foundation, a non-profit that works to strengthen the rule of law and promote justice for international and transnational crimes. Canada has this law, he said, but has shown little interest in ever using it.

Prof. Kersten said he would be interested to see how Canada and the U.S. will navigate Ukraine’s request for a special tribunal to prosecute the crime of aggression, adding that both countries have been apprehensive. The United Nations defines the crime as the invasion or attack by the armed forces of one state on the territory of another state, as well as any military occupations.

Ukraine has said it wants Canada to take a leadership role in the creation of such a tribunal to prosecute Russian leaders, as the ICC does not have jurisdiction among non-member states to prosecute the crime of aggression. Neither Russia nor Ukraine is a member of the ICC – for that matter, neither is the United States, China or India – though Ukraine recognizes its jurisdiction.

Dr. Van Schaack said the U.S. understands the “high priority” impulse behind Ukraine’s request, and so they’re looking at different models very carefully.

Adrien Blanchard, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, said Canada will be relentless in its efforts to hold Mr. Putin and his accomplices accountable for their war crimes in Ukraine. He said a team of specialized RCMP officers have been deployed to support the ICC in its investigations, and the government has funded crisis services intended to help victims of sexual violence in Ukraine.

Mr. Blanchard said Canada has recently accepted Ukraine’s invitation to join a core group of international partners seeking to hold Russia accountable for its aggression.

“The work is ongoing, but Canada will be there every step of the way. Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is a flagrant violation of international law, and the atrocious crimes committed by President Putin and his accomplices cannot go unpunished.”

With a report from Reuters

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