The Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced on Wednesday that he will open an immediate investigation into possible war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine, in response to the request of an unprecedented number of member states of the Court.
Officials in Russia, Ukraine and the United Nations assert that the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 did not overthrow the government in Kyiv, but that thousands of people are believed to have been killed or injured.
“Officially active investigations in Ukraine begin as soon as referrals are received from 39 state parties,” Prosecutor General Karim Khan wrote on Twitter.
Referrals by ICC member states speed up the investigation because they allow the prosecutor to bypass having to seek court approval in The Hague, saving months of procedure.
The prosecutor had already said on Monday that he would seek court approval for alleged war crimes in Ukraine, Reuters reported.
Khan added in a statement that the Prosecutor General’s Office will begin to collect evidence on “any past and current allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide committed in any part of the territory of Ukraine by any person.”
The ICC’s moves came after the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday overwhelmingly adopted a resolution demanding Russia’s “immediate” withdrawal from Ukraine, in a strong rebuke of Moscow’s invasion by the vast majority of the world’s nations.
After more than two days of extraordinary debate, which saw the Ukrainian ambassador to Russia accused of genocide, 141 of the 193 UN member states voted in favor of the non-binding resolution.
China was among 35 countries that abstained from voting, while only five countries voted against the resolution, Eritrea, North Korea, Syria, Belarus, and of course Russia.
The resolution said it “regretted” the invasion of Ukraine “in the strongest terms” and condemned President Vladimir Putin’s decision to put his nuclear forces on alert.
US President Joe Biden commented that the decision to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “illustrates the extent of global outrage at Russia’s horrific attack on a sovereign neighbour.”
Diplomats have described the vote as a pioneering move for democracy in an increasingly authoritarian world, and it came as Putin’s forces press on Kyiv and terrified Ukrainians flee.
“They have come to deprive Ukraine of its right to exist,” Ukraine’s ambassador, Sergei Kisletsya, told the assembly before the vote.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine caused heavy casualties among civilians on Wednesday, after bombing residential neighborhoods and besieging major cities.
Emergency services following a raid on a TV tower in Kyiv on Tuesday that killed five people
On the ground, the mayor of Kherson, a coastal city in southern Ukraine, confirmed that it had fallen into the hands of Russian forces on Wednesday, and it is the first major city occupied by Russia and has strategic importance because it is coastal and close to the Crimean peninsula.
The city’s mayor, Igor Kulekhaev, said that Russian forces stormed the city hall and imposed a curfew on residents.
Several cities were also heavily bombed in one of the most devastating days of the invasion to date.
Russian forces appeared to be surrounding major cities in Ukraine including Kharkiv and the coastal Mariupol.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called his people “a symbol of indomitable heroism”.
Sergey Orlov, the deputy mayor of Mariupol, told the BBC that the Mariupol region, in the southeast, was under continuous shelling on Wednesday.
He added, “The situation in Mariupol is horrific. We are close to a humanitarian catastrophe. We have been subjected to more than 15 hours of non-stop bombardment.”
“The Russian army uses all its weapons here – artillery, multiple launch rocket systems, aircraft, tactical missiles. They are trying to destroy the city,” he said.
Orlov noted that Russian forces were several kilometers away from the city on all sides, and that strikes on key infrastructure had cut off water and electricity supplies to parts of the city. He said a densely populated residential area on the city’s left bank was “almost completely destroyed”.
“We can’t count the number of casualties there, but we think that at least hundreds of people have died. We can’t go in to retrieve the bodies. My father lives there, I can’t reach him, and I don’t know if he is alive or dead,” he said.
The mayor of the besieged city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine said that the Russian bombing was inflicting heavy losses on the civilian population, but said that the city would not fall into the hands of Russian forces.
Ihor Terekhov told the BBC that shells and missiles were constantly hitting residential areas and that Russian tanks were getting closer.
He added that the Ukrainian forces were engaged in battles with what he called “subversive groups.”
Ukraine’s emergency services have said more than 2,000 civilians have been killed so far during the Russian invasion, although the BBC has not been able to independently verify that number.