With the conflict in Ukraine dragging into its third month, the port city of Mariupol has become not only a symbol for fierce resistance, but also of barbarity and flagrant disregard for international law and the lives of innocent civilians.

With Russian forces, so far, unable to take the city, they have resorted to both indiscriminate and targeted attacks on civilians, including apartment blocks, schools, hospitals and government buildings. This has caused significant civilian casualties, with the city’s mayor claiming last week that almost 5,000 people have so far been killed and that 90 %of the city’s buildings had been damaged, with 40% destroyed. The now famous image of a woman in labor, who has tragically since died, being stretchered out of a now destroyed maternity hospital is testament to the barbarity of these attacks.

The targeting of civilians has caused tens of thousands of people to flee west to Kyiv and Lviv and then into neighboring countries. For those who remain, attacks by Russian forces have made it increasingly difficult to escape, with reports of civilians killed while attempting to leave the city by vehicle or foot. While Russia has recently called for a ceasefire and a humanitarian corridor, previous attempts at negotiating the safe passage of civilians have quickly broken down, with Russia the culprit in continuing to target people taking escape routes.

Making matters worse, damaged civilian infrastructure has meant that crucial services, including water, food, power and heating have become unavailable, creating a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation that threatens to cost the lives of more innocent people. There are reports that residents have resorted to melting snow for drinking water and that a significant number of the estimated 160,000 who remain are facing acute food shortages and hunger. With a lack of power and hospitals targeted, this has also meant that those unable to escape, such as the elderly and people with a disability, are unable to access vital medical care.

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The siege of Mariupol, the denial of humanitarian corridors and the targeting of civilians have been condemned as war crimes by Amnesty International and the international community more broadly. The President of the United States, Joe Biden, has publicly said that Vladimir Putin is a war criminal and the actions of his armed forces in Ukraine, particularly Mariupol, have been called out by the European Union, the United Kingdom and Australia.

Russia’s history of war crimes

Russia has a reputation here, with a history of bombing civilians, hospitals and schools and targeting humanitarian corridors. Tactics of killing, injuring and terrorizing civilians were used to a horrific effect against rebel forces in Syria from 2015 onwards. Russia, in partnership with Syrian government forces, besieged, starved and combed civilian areas, including schools and hospitals, in order to demoralize the population and crush any resistance. This included the use of cluster and ‘barrel’ bombs, and chemical weapons, all of which are outlawed under international law.

Current events in Mariupol have frightening parallels to Aleppo, a once thriving Syrian city, that is now completely destroyed. Russian fighter jets bombed schools, hospitals and markets, particularly those full of people while the city was besieged by Syrian ground forces. Negotiated humanitarian corridors were also bombed, causing further civilian casualties when people attempted to flee. Like Mariupol, Aleppo quickly descended into a humanitarian catastrophe, with the cutting of rebel supply lines preventing vital supplies like food, water and medicine from reaching innocent civilians.

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The tactics used by Russia, in Syria and now Ukraine, reflects a brutality that in no way respects the lives of civilians and is a rejection of the principles of human rights and international law.

The international community, to their discredit, largely stood by and watched innocent Syrians being killed in Aleppo, it cannot allow the same to occur in Mariupol.

What is to be done?

While Russia is notorious for not adhering to international law, there are steps the international community can take to make it clear that the wholesale destruction of cities, and the targeting of civilians, will not be tolerated. Put simply, an enforceable red line needs to be drawn.

In a positive step, the International Criminal Court has opened an investigation over war crimes committed by Russian forces. While neither Ukraine nor Russia are parties to the ICC, the court does have authority in this instance as Ukraine granted jurisdiction to the court after Russia’s involvement in the Donbas in 2014. While the likelihood of Putin or his inner circle being successfully prosecuted is unlikely, it is an important precedent nonetheless if they are found guilty.

Outside of the ICC process, the international community needs to make it clear to Russia that international law needs to be followed to avoid a repeat of Aleppo. Implementing harsher economic sanctions and providing vital military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine is a direct way of doing this. Broadly speaking, the international community is already taking these steps, which is welcome. But more needs to be done, and quickly.

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With a direct military confrontation unlikely, harsher sanctions on Russian business, particularly in the energy sector, will isolate the regime economically, and sanctions on prominent individuals will pressure the regime from within. 

The international community should also use the power for the United Nations General Assembly to vote Russia off influential bodies. This can be and has been done. Russia’s suspension from the United Nations Human Rights Council is testament to this. 

Through these steps, the international community can show Russia that international law is still a powerful tool, and one that should be respected, in order to partake in world affairs.

It’s time for the international community to make it clear that the inhumanity seen in Aleppo and Mariupol will no longer be tolerated. Only a strong response will ensure that civilian lives are saved.

(Senior Editor Francesca Julia Zucchelli edited this article.)

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.