The designation as a war – either international or civil – changes the game legally, because it turns both sides into combatants with equal liability for war crimes, which have no statute of limitations and cannot be absolved by an amnesty. Suspects may also be arrested abroad, since some countries apply “universal jurisdiction” to war crimes.
Without the designation, Ukrainian government forces would be responsible for protecting civilians and infrastructure under international human rights law, while separatists would only be liable under Ukraine’s criminal laws.
“It changes their accountability on the international stage,” said Andrew Clapham, director of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. “This makes individuals more likely to be prosecuted for war crimes.”