Documenting War Crimes in Ukraine

Writer and Fletcher School alumna Janine di Giovanni leads the Reckoning Project, an effort to link journalism to justice

As a war reporter, Janine di Giovanni, F16, has published heart-wrenching stories about atrocities in Bosnia, Rwanda, and other conflict zones for three decades. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, she vowed to do even more in her quest for justice.

In the early days of the war, di Giovanni cofounded a non-governmental organization that trains Ukrainian journalists to document war crimes. The testimonies the journalists gather are being used not only for media reports but also to build cases for future criminal prosecutions.

“We're trying to send this very powerful message out there to all the bad guys, that you will not get away with this,” says di Giovanni, who serves as executive director of the Reckoning Project. “The world is watching; we are watching, we're verifying, we're documenting. And one day we will get you.”

The United Nations has confirmed that war crimes have been committed in Ukraine since the invasion. Both Ukrainian officials and International Criminal Court prosecutors could bring charges.

Janine di Giovanni, executive director of the Reckoning Project

“We're trying to send this very powerful message out there to all the bad guys, that you will not get away with this,” says Janine di Giovanni of her organization’s efforts to document war crimes. Photo: Courtesy of Janine di Giovanni

Di Giovanni cofounded the Reckoning Project with Peter Pomerantsev, an author and expert on disinformation. Ukrainian journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk is the lead journalist for the organization, which involves legal experts and data analysts as well as on-the-ground researchers. The Reckoning Project has received funding from the United States Agency for International Development and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.

A contributing editor to Vanity Fair, di Giovanni has published nine books and won numerous honors, including the 2016 Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation. Tufts Now talked with her about her latest project and the long road to justice. 

Tufts Now: What motivated you to create the Reckoning Project?

Janine di Giovanni: I started the Reckoning Project because I witnessed 18 wars, three genocides, and three Putin wars: in Syria, in Chechnya, and now in Ukraine. I felt that there were enormous gaps between these hideous crimes against humanity and war crimes and [how many] people were actually brought to the [International Criminal Court]. So it really was about bitterness and anger and frustration at not seeing justice delivered and seeing impunity, over and over.

Why did you decide to focus on training journalists to gather evidence?

Because journalists are excellent researchers. They know how to interview people. Journalists and social workers are probably the people who are the most skilled at taking human testimony.

The other reason is that frontline journalists are witnessing atrocities in real time. So it made sense to use people who understood what was going on. The Reckoning Project uses only Ukrainian researchers.

Your organization has trained 25 human rights monitors in Ukraine. What do journalists need to learn, or do differently, so that their reports can be used as evidence in the courts?

The training sessions are quite intensive. We train researchers, first of all, in interviewing techniques so that they don't ask leading questions, so that their questions are not putting words in the mouth of a witness or leading them to say something.

The second thing is that they need a good background in international humanitarian law and a knowledge of past cases. We also give them a lot of training in trauma, for themselves, but also for the people they're talking to, so that they don't retraumatize them in any way inadvertently while they're interviewing them. That is very important given how sensitive some of our material is.

Some people might say a journalist is there simply to report for the media. Do you see it as a moral responsibility to also gather evidence for war crimes investigations?

Not every journalist should be a war crimes investigator by any means. But for the Reckoning Project, we train Ukrainians because I want them to have the agency to contribute to this project on accountability.

When the Ukrainian forces recaptured Kherson, we got there the next day. You know, we're on the ground. We’re highly skilled, highly trained, and we know the story. And more than that, the researchers are hugely invested in doing this.

How many testimonies has your team gathered at this point, and how do you plan to use them?

We've gathered 200, for dual purposes. The first purpose is that we're beginning to build cases that will be used in the Ukrainian national court system and with the International Criminal Court or, separately, a special tribunal for the crime of aggression, should that come to be. To build cases for international justice mechanisms, we're beginning to look at the patterns in the testimonies, with our data analysts and lawyers who are on our team. We also contribute to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine and various human rights reports by our partners.

The second part is, because we are journalists, we build multimedia platforms that use the testimonies to tell stories. These might be long-format stories that appear in Time magazine or the Atlantic or Vanity Fair. We make films, which we show at embassies around the world or at Davos. We combine storytelling with legal accountability, shining a light on the war crimes and the situation in Ukraine.

You're currently focused on Ukraine. Do you expect to bring a similar effort to other parts of the world in the future?

Yes, definitely. I think we'll be in Ukraine for a while, but we really would like to use this as a model because there are so many parts of the world where impunity is rampant. Look at Syria, look at Yemen, Myanmar, Mexico, Colombia, the list goes on and on. My vision would be to have a world without impunity or a world where, when heinous crimes are committed, the people who did them get punished and not what it is now, which is that so many people who do wicked things just fade back into their lives after the war’s end.

War crimes prosecutions, if they occur at all, can take years to unfold. How might the Reckoning Project affect that?

In Rwanda, it took 20 years to get the architects of the genocide to the courts. In Bosnia, by the time they got [former Serbian president Slobodan] Milosevic, he spent so much time grandstanding at the Hague that he died four years later and justice was never delivered.

We're trying to hasten this. Our motto is “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

We're trying to send this very powerful message out there to all the bad guys, that you will not get away with this. The world is watching; we are watching, we're verifying, we're documenting. And one day we will get you.

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