A war crimes investigation has been launched into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine after an unprecedented number of countries backed the move and Boris Johnson called the military intervention “abhorrent”.
Karim Khan, the chief prosecutor for the international criminal court (ICC), said he would begin work “as rapidly as possible” to look for possible crimes against humanity or genocide committed in Ukraine.
The referral for investigation by 39 countries – including the UK – will shave several months off the process because it allows Khan to bypass the need to seek the approval of the court in The Hague.
It came as Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, braced for a siege and the Russian defence ministry claimed it was in “complete control” of Kherson, a southern port city near the Crimean peninsula.
Khan said an “advanced team” of investigators was already travelling to Ukraine.
The British lawyer told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the push for an inquiry by so many countries “allows us to jump-start investigations” and came on top of “evidence of international concern over events on the ground in Ukraine”.
“Individuals have rights to have their interests vindicated and for justice to prevail,” Khan said.
“That can only take place if evidence is independently and impartially collected and assessed and then in due course, decisions can be made regarding whether or not there’s criminal responsibility, and then the judges ultimately will decide.”
Asked about reports Russia was using cluster bombs in civilian areas, Khan said “it is clear … directing attacks against civilians and civilian objects amounts to a war crime”.
The ICC investigation will look back as far as 21 November 2013, when Ukraine’s then president rejected closer integration with the EU, leading to huge protests that precipitated Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Liz Truss, the UK foreign secretary, accused the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, of “targeting civilians indiscriminately” and directing troops to tear through towns across Ukraine. “The UK will work closely with allies to ensure justice is done,” she said.
The UK justice secretary, Dominic Raab, told the Daily Telegraph Britain could house Russian commanders suspected of war crimes in its prisons – and act as a safe haven for witnesses who testified against them. He said that “few countries around the world” had the UK’s “lead information”, which would likely prove “absolutely critical” to the ICC.
As the Russian invasion entered its eighth day, the UN refugee agency estimated that 1 million people had now fled Ukraine, making it the swiftest exodus of refugees this century.
More than 2,000 civilians had died since the invasion began, Ukraine’s state emergency service said.
Moscow’s international isolation was further displayed when the UN general assembly voted overwhelmingly to demand Putin immediately withdraw Russian troops: 141 nations backed the motion and only five, including the alleged co-aggressor Belarus, opposed it.
The UK government has been criticised for the pace of sanctions being levelled on Russians close to Putin and their business interests. The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, questioned on Wednesday why it would take 18 months for a new register of property ownership to apply to existing owners.
Frans Timmermans, first vice-president of the European Commission, said he thought the UK was “following our lead”.
After it was revealed the Conservatives had accepted an £80,000 donation from the former wife of one of Putin’s ministers within the last six months, Timmermans added: “I think even parties who accepted funding from oligarchs should understand that they need to change course. Because, if I don’t misunderstand the mood in the UK, that’s what the British public want”
Damian Hinds, the UK security minister, told LBC radio: “I don’t accept that my political party accepts money from illegitimate sources.”
Hinds also welcomed the ICC investigation and said all indications suggested that Putin “is guilty” of war crimes.
UK officials have said more sanctions are coming, against oligarchs, Russian national security council members and banks, and that they believe the economic shock of the moves has been more significant than Putin was expecting.