The EU will assume legal custody of evidence on war crimes in Ukraine | International

The European Commission has taken another step this Monday to prevent alleged war crimes committed by Russian troops in Ukraine from going unpunished. The body chaired by Ursula von der Leyen has approved a project to reform Eurojust, the European judicial cooperation agency, to allow that body to assume legal custody of the evidence collected on the ground and whose security and integrity are not guaranteed if they remain in war zone. The change, which must be approved by the Council of the EU and the European Parliament to enter into force, will turn Eurojust into a centralized bunker of data and documents to be shared with international justice, that of Ukraine or that of other countries. , in case they decide to charge commanders or troops of the Russian Army.

Eurojust will thus go from being a mere support for ongoing investigations by the Ukrainian authorities and several European countries, to becoming the central repository for all the evidence collected on the ground. The reform of the Eurojust regulation will allow the agency to collect, analyze and preserve evidence related to international crimes. The mandate will cover the custody of all kinds of sources, from documents, videos or photographs to images taken by satellites.

In the case of Ukraine, the safe storage of all this evidence represents a significant economic and logistical effort, probably unfeasible for a country in the midst of a war against the Russian invasion. The number of crimes allegedly committed also seems to make international assistance essential.

The Commission proposal foresees additional funding for Eurojust of €15 million for the period 2022-2027, including half a million euros per year for data and archive management. In terms of human resources, Brussels estimates that 16 full-time, highly-skilled employees will be needed to take over that evidence base. The necessary job profiles include experts in judicial cooperation, lawyers with linguistic training, legal experts, computer technicians and liaison officers with the International Criminal Court (ICC), and with civil society organizations.

President Ursula von der Leyen delivers a speech while attending a joint press conference with Ukraine’s president in kyiv on April 8, 2022.

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Vera Jourová, Vice President of the Justice Area Commission, considers it essential to strengthen Eurojust’s mandate and structure “in order to guarantee that it has the necessary instruments to face the magnitude of the atrocities committed in Ukraine”. The European Commissioner for Justice, Didier Reynders, has pointed out that “since the beginning of the Russian invasion, the world has witnessed the atrocities committed in Bucha, Kramatorsk and other Ukrainian cities; Those responsible for these war crimes must be held accountable for their actions.”

Investigations already underway

Investigations to try to clarify these alleged war crimes are already underway by the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office, the ICC prosecutor and the judicial authorities of 11 EU countries. Most of the EU partners are also mobilizing financial and technical resources to accelerate the collection of evidence in Ukraine, a process that, according to experts, must be carried out as urgently as possible to prevent the evidence from losing validity. and that the authors can go unpunished.

New graves in the Bucha cemetery, the municipality where the Ukrainian authorities claim to have found 700 bodies in recent weeks, after the withdrawal of Russian troops.Photo: ANDRII NESTERENKO (EFE) | Video: EPV

The EU crisis cabinet for the war in Ukraine met urgently last week with the aim of accelerating the dispatch of forensic, ballistic and damage assessment experts, among others, to the attacked country, in order to proceed as soon as possible with the documentation of possible crimes.

In the Bucha area there is already a French forensic team identifying an average of 15 bodies a day. But the French government has urged the rest to send reinforcements in the face of the daunting task ahead. The President of the Spanish Government, Pedro Sánchez, announced last Thursday the dispatch of eight specialists from the Ministry of the Interior and 29 doctors and 10 officers of forensic activities. Other governments, such as that of Greece, have shown their willingness to concentrate their aid, at least the financial one, in the area of ​​Mariupol, a Ukrainian city with a significant population of Greek origin.

The project to reform the Eurojust regulation states that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that war crimes and crimes against humanity have been and are being committed in Ukraine”. The national authorities of the countries involved in the investigations are collecting evidence. But Brussels believes, according to the project, that “given the ongoing hostilities, they cannot be stored safely in Ukraine, so it is urgent to have a place of storage or backup guaranteed by the Union.”

Brussels assures that it has adopted its proposal urgently as a result of the meetings held with all the parties involved in the investigation (CFI, national authorities, NGOs), in which they pointed out the limitations that Eurojust would have, with its current mandate, to assume legal custody of the collected evidence. The Commission adds that the need for a central warehouse was also raised during the two meetings it has held with the European network for the investigation and prosecution of genocide (an EU body linked to Eurojust) since the start of the war in Ukraine last February 24th.

The Commission specifies that the role of Eurojust as custody of the evidence will not mean that this agency assumes an executive function as an investigative authority, a power that is not included in its mandate. But the reform will ensure that it can centrally receive and retain evidence that comes in from a variety of sources. An archive of horror that can be decisive in the postwar period and in the trial, at a historical minimum, of the Putin regime.

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