Grazvydas Jasutis, Rebecca Mikova, Jody Prescott and William Schabas
The identification, gathering of evidence, and reporting of war crimes are critical components in international efforts to prevent and punish atrocities committed in armed conflicts. Investigations and prosecutions of war crimes are the primary responsibility of specialized agencies and authorities, such as the Office of the Prosecutor General. However, regular soldiers, as frontline witnesses to the violence that occurs could play a critical role in identifying and documenting potential war crimes and might be called upon to provide essential support.
Since soldiers lead offensive operations into occupied territories and are the first to arrive in recently liberated areas, they may be in a unique position to protect, preserve and gather evidence of war crimes. It is nevertheless important to recognize that soldiers are not trained investigators and their involvement in these processes poses various challenges.
To ensure that soldiers respond appropriately when they witness potential war crime scenes, it is crucial that national authorities develop legal and technical guidance on this matter and train and prepare soldiers to this end.
The collection of war crime evidence during an ongoing conflict is relatively new and there are no international standards or internationally recognized best practices on what role soldiers should play.
This policy paper will therefore serve as initial guidance to national policymakers aiming to develop policies or training curricula for soldiers as ‘first responders’ at potential war crime scenes.
It addresses various considerations that national stakeholders should take into account and examines the role and duties, as well as the challenges and limitations, associated with the role of soldiers in identifying, gathering evidence for, and reporting war crimes.
It also provides recommendations for how policymakers and military leaders can support soldiers in carrying out these tasks in a responsible and effective manner.