She is appealing to other countries that are party to the international court to consider opening their own prosecutions into allegations of Russia’s sex crimes by claiming universal jurisdiction — the legal principle that some violations are so odious they are an affront to humanity at large, and therefore can be tried by any nation’s court system. Earlier this year, a German court convicted a Syrian intelligence officer of crimes against humanity, and sentenced him to life in prison, for overseeing a security center in Damascus where detainees were tortured, raped and otherwise abused.
The United States is not a party to the international court in The Hague and cannot prosecute abuse cases in American courts without a referral from the U.N. Security Council, which Russia would almost certainly veto.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
As a permanent member of the Security Council, Moscow could also veto efforts to impose international sanctions against Russian individuals or organizations believed to have carried out sex crimes or violence against women in Ukraine. Ms. Patten said economic penalties issued in recent years against officials who targeted female activists in Yemen, or failed to stop sexual abuse of detainees in Libya, have served as a warning to deter gender-based violence elsewhere.
An annual report released by Ms. Patten’s office this month concluded that U.N. investigators had verified nearly 3,300 cases of conflict-related sexual violence worldwide in 2021 — an increase of about 800 cases from the year before.
“If this sexual violence is happening on the scale that it is happening, with the brutality and the fact that justice remains painfully slow, it’s not for lack of a normative framework,” Ms. Patten said. “It’s because there is no political will” to stop or at least punish it, she said.
In Ukraine, much of the evidence compiled so far in sexual assault cases has been collected by investigators for nongovernment organizations, like Ms. Gorbunova, or journalists. Many victims who have reported their assaults have done so anonymously, Ms. Patten said, refusing to identify themselves in phone calls to government hotlines.
In the rape outside Kharkiv, Ms. Gorbunova said it was not yet clear if the attack would rise to the level of a war crime, or if it was a case of one soldier’s depravity.