Sweden cooperates internationally through both the EU and the UN to investigate war crimes. Photo: WiR_Pixs. Source: Canva.


This is how Sweden investigates international war crimes

Russia's war on Ukraine is regularly reported on the news. We are reached by testimonies of awfulness war crimes that describe how Russian soldiers have raped and executed civilians as well as attacked hospitals and residential buildings in Ukraine. And Sweden takes a great international responsibility to conduct investigations into war crimes in the world.  

In the July sun at Almedalen Week in Visby on Gotland, war crimes feel very remote. Unfortunately, the reality of the war is becoming increasingly apparent to the millions of people who are currently fleeing violence in Ukraine. In Sweden, we have, among other things, been reached by testimonies of Russian robot attacks aimed at shopping center and Children's Hospital of Ukraine. Despite appeals from the international community, there are still no signs of a halt to “this senseless violence", As UN Secretary-General António Guterres put it. Sweden's leading role in the world in conducting investigations into international war crimes was discussed during this year's Almedalen Week, and Sweden has since February initiated preliminary investigations into war crimes in Ukraine.

War crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes under international law

War crimes are not synonymous with all crimes committed during war, Chamber Prosecutors Hanna Lemoine and Reena Devgun explain during the seminar "Rwanda, Syria and now Ukraine - so Sweden investigates war crimes in other countries" organized by the Public Prosecutor's Office during Almedalen Week.

War crimes are serious violations of the rules of war, and both soldiers and civilians can be perpetrators. Even in war, there are laws that determine what is considered permissible and impermissible warfare. For example, counts violence against civilians and attacks on health care as war crimes. Laws of War, also known as “dan international humanitarian law", Aims to minimize human suffering in war.

What war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity are were some of the things that were pointed out in the Public Prosecutor's Office's seminar during Almedalen Week. Pictured from left: Hanna Lemoine and Reena Devgun, chamber prosecutors, and Cecilia Tengroth, secretary general of the Swedish UN. Photo: The Public Prosecutor's Office.

Hanna Lemoine describes how convictions for war crimes presuppose, for example killing of a civilian person so-calledone in war. If the killing takes place with the aim of destroying an ethnic group in whole or in part, it can also be a genocide. If the murder takes place as a systematic attack on a group, it can be seen as a crime against humanity. Genocide and crimes against humanity must therefore not take place in war. Relatively often, all three crimes are prosecuted, Hanna Lemoine says in a short interview after the seminar.

Despite the fact that the media is filled with news and reports from the war in Ukraine, the chairs in the room where the Public Prosecutor's Office's seminar has been arranged are mostly empty. Whether this is due to a lack of interest or knowledge of Sweden's international commitments remains an unanswered question.

Evidence is the big challenge

Sweden has a particularly vulnerable group of police and prosecutors who work to investigate war crimes. The advantage of this is that it creates continuity in the work and enables the development of effective working methods, according to Hanna Lemoine.

- At first we often do not have enough evidence at all, but we see that it is possible to find evidence. The evidence is sources, but can also be found via social media or through travel to hear witnesses and investigate crime scenes, she says.

It is described as important to quickly gather data that can serve as evidence, which is currently underway for preliminary investigations into war crimes in Ukraine.

Gathering evidence is described as the major challenge in war crime investigations, which differs significantly from other criminal investigations. War crimes are committed in places outside the Swedish police's jurisdiction, often long ago, and involve people who have been subjected to serious trauma. Although social media can be used to spread disinformation in war, it also provides new opportunities to gather evidence through images of people posing with dead bodies or weapons.

Hanna Lemoine clarifies that the work with war crime investigations varies from case to case.

- During investigations into war crimes in Syria, there was no opportunity to go there. It is not just a security issue, we must have approval to carry out Swedish government work from each country.

It is important to visit the place where the war crime was committed to gain an understanding of the local context, says Hanna Lemoine. It can also be valuable for the local community to see the ongoing work for justice.

The investigation work varies depending on whether the victim is male or female, according to Hanna Lemoine. In an international context, it is sometimes more difficult to obtain information from women.

- We often have witnesses who are a man who refers on to another man and then it is important to try to get the perspective of women and children as well, she says.

International (cooperation)

"Sweden has an international obligation to investigate and prosecute genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes”, It says The Public Prosecutor's Office's website, but what does it really mean?

International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague was established by the UN to investigate serious war crimes by citizens of its member states or where the UN has given the court jurisdiction to prosecute. Here is Sweden's international obligation to investigate war crimes. Sweden cooperates internationally through both the EU and the UN, both of which have their own bodies for coordinating investigations into war crimes. However, co-operation does not take place without problems, as countries' resources for handling such investigations vary considerably.

- Where and when judgments are handed down is irrelevant, that it happens is most important. International co-operation to prosecute war crimes is a basic precondition, said chamber prosecutor Reena Devgun during the Public Prosecutor's Office's war crimes seminar in Almedalen.

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