RCMP probing reports of 'heinous' war crimes in Ukraine - but prosecutions could take years
The RCMP says it is investigating serious allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity stemming from Russia's war on Ukraine — but it warns that getting cases to the prosecution stage could take years.
"We really try to manage expectations, to say this may be quite a process to investigate something," said Cpl. Kate Walaszczyk, an investigator with the RCMP's Ukraine war crimes unit.
"It can take quite some time."
Walaszczyk's team operates what's called a structural investigation under the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act. It's a Canadian law that punishes acts of genocide, crimes against humanity and a variety of other war crimes.
It passed in 2000, replacing a previous law targeting Nazi war criminals. It allows the RCMP to prosecute a person in Canada even if the acts in question were committed outside Canadian territory.
The RCMP has asked for witnesses to come forward by setting up electronic signs at airports, advertising online and distributing pamphlets. Walaszczyk and her team have been canvassing community groups; she said she's received a "positive" response.
The RCMP asks refugees from the region to fill out a questionnaire that cites various examples of war crimes, from torture and sexual assault to the use of chemical weapons and attacks on hospitals and schools.
Walaszczyk said she can't delve into the specifics of her open files. "The allegations that have come forward in the international media is what is being looked at," she said.
"These acts are heinous."
Walaszczyk said the goal during this first year of the investigation is to preserve evidence, including physical and digital evidence, and gather victims' stories.
"Let's say a conflict finishes. Individuals don't come forward about those allegations until years later, and then evidence is lost. Memories are lost, all those things are lost," she said.
"We need it to be robust, so that there aren't gaps … When if you don't do your job properly, when you don't gather the evidence properly, these things fall apart. And then what's the point?"
Canada often prefers deportation: expert
Mark Kersten, a consultant with the international justice advocacy group the Wayamo Foundation, said the RCMP may never end up prosecuting the people behind war crimes in Ukraine.
"A victim of a bombing or a witness to a bombing or some kind of attack is very unlikely to have information that says, you know, 'I actually saw the guy flying the plane,' let alone the person who put them in the plane who was giving him orders," he said.
"So Canada, from these interviews, they would know what happened where and they would have a sense of the structure of the crime, without necessarily knowing who's in command and ultimately responsible for these things."
There have been just two trials under the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act. The first to be charged was Désiré Munyaneza, a Rwandan refugee living in Toronto, who was imprisoned in 2009 for his role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Jacques Mungwarere, also a Rwandan refugee, was charged following allegations he participated in a massacre of Tutsis in a hospital in the region of Kibuye.
In 2013, Mungwarere was acquitted after Judge Michel Charbonneau of the Ontario Superior Court ruled that the defence had raised a reasonable doubt.
Since then, Kersten said, Canada has preferred to deal with war criminals through deportation.
"We don't do it with guarantees that they'll be prosecuted in the place that they're sent to. We just wash our hands of this issue," he said.
"I don't think that the government has shown any interest in reviving this possibility of prosecuting ... foreign war criminals in Canadian courts."
It's a posture he hopes the Liberal government will change as calls mount to hold Russian perpetrators to account.
"[Ottawa] has not changed its official policy, which is that its last preference in dealing with war criminals is to prosecute them in Canadian courts," he said.
"Come out and say, 'Look, if a perpetrator of international crimes from Ukraine or [a] Russian perpetrator comes into Canadian territory, we will not hesitate to use our court system to investigate and prosecute them."
U.S. says Russia has committed crimes against humanity
Politicians have used increasingly strong language to denounce Russian President Vladimir Putin's aggression.
Earlier this month, U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris said "there is no doubt" that Russia has committed crimes against humanity during its war on Ukraine. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland has said Putin and his regime have committed "absolutely reprehensible war crimes."
Walaszczyk said that as an investigator, she has to concentrate on the facts before her.
"What I focus on is your observations, your firsthand accounts of what you've witnessed, and that's what I can work with," she said.
The RCMP also shares information with other nations to help them with their own investigations and to ensure the victims' trauma and PTSD is taken into account.
"We've learned over time that, let's say a victim comes forward to one country and a statement is taken, and then another nation state's interested in speaking with that victim — they just get re-traumatized and re-traumatized and re-traumatized," Walaszczyk said.
"So the nature of this is, here we have this repository of information, several nation states want to speak with an individual. Now we have the opportunity together to do this, and do it once and do it well."
Last year, the RCMP sent officers to work with the International Criminal Court (ICC) to help investigate claims.
Kersten, also a senior researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, said that also will take time.
"You're probably not looking at anyone being investigated or prosecuted in Canada or at the ICC anytime soon," he said.
"But it just has to be ready in case someone does something foolish. For example, someone visits the wrong country at the wrong time."