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MUNICH — The United States has determined that Russia is committing crimes against humanity in Ukraine, Vice President Kamala Harris announced Saturday, the latest salvo in the West’s effort to hold Moscow accountable for its wartime atrocities.
In a marquee address at the Munich Security Conference, Harris detailed that Russia is responsible for a “widespread and systematic attack” against Ukraine’s civilian population, citing evidence of execution-style killings, rape, torture and forceful deportations — sometimes perpetrated against children. As a result, Russia has not only committed war crimes, as the administration formally concluded in March, but also illegal acts against non-combatants.
“Their actions are an assault on our common values, an attack on our common humanity,” the vice president said, referencing images of bodies lying in the streets of Bucha and the sexual assault of a four-year-old girl by a Russian soldier. “Barbaric and inhumane.”
Harris then declared: “The United States has formally determined that Russia has committed crimes against humanity.”
The Biden administration will continue to assist Ukraine in its investigation into these alleged crimes, she said, vowing that the perpetrators and “their superiors” will be “held to account.”
She added: “Let us all agree: on behalf of all the victims, both known and unknown: justice must be served.”
The declaration is among the most forceful yet from a Western power as allies grapple with how to punish Russians responsible for violations. And it escalates the judicial side of America’s support for Ukraine, which has long said Russia was guilty of these crimes and that Russian President Vladimir Putin was ultimately responsible.
Harris didn’t cite Putin by name, but the clear implication is that the invasion he launched nearly a year ago is why Ukrainian civilians are now victims of these international law violations.
While “crimes against humanity” are not officially codified in an international treaty, they are still adjudicated in the International Criminal Court and other global bodies. The Biden administration’s determination means the U.S. believes Russian actions have met a broader standard than war crimes but not as specific a violation as genocide.
“In contrast with genocide, crimes against humanity do not need to target a specific group,” according to the United Nations. “Instead, the victim of the attack can be any civilian population, regardless of its affiliation or identity. Another important distinction is that in the case of crimes against humanity, it is not necessary to prove that there is an overall specific intent.”
Some, however, would like the Biden administration to go further. Back in the United States, both of West Virginia’s senators, Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Shelley Moore Capito, introduced a resolution to recognize Russia’s war on Ukraine as a genocide.
Others like Tom Malinowski, a former member of Congress and senior human rights official at the State Department, believe “these debates about what to call Russia’s atrocities are less important than providing Ukraine the means to stop them.”
“But yes, there’s no question that Russia is committing crimes against humanity,” he continued, “and we’re right to say so.”
On Friday, shortly after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke via video to the gathering of officials and experts here, Andriy Yermak, the chief of Ukraine’s presidential office, said his country wouldn’t feel safe until Russia’s leadership was punished.
“The fastest and easiest way to build the security of Ukraine and the whole world is to create a special tribunal to try the Russian leadership for the crime of aggression. Europe and the entire civilized world understand why it is necessary,” he said at the opening of the “Ukraine is You” exhibit.
Last November, human rights organization Amnesty International said Russia was “likely” committing crimes against humanity, citing instances of the forceful transfer and deportation of people from Ukraine.