A child looks out the window of a train as it arrives in Lviv from Zaporizhzhia on 5 April 2022IMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES

Accounts of atrocities committed by Russian troops against Ukrainian civilians are emerging daily. There are calls for President Putin and others to be prosecuted for war crimes – but how likely is that to happen? Given its past record, and failure to stop this war which has seen more than 11 million people flee their homes, the BBC’s Fergal Keane considers whether the international community will be able to unite.

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Even when the spring sunlight fills the little park, it remains an unsettling place. The Jewish world commemorated at Arsenalna Square in central Lviv was destroyed by genocide. The people who worshipped at the Golden Rose synagogue were either exiled or killed. There is no escape from history here. It is present in the memorial stones for the dead and in the void left by a murdered generation.

In western Ukraine’s biggest city, the past collides with the present in other ways too. You can hear it in the rattle of today’s refugee suitcases being pulled across the same cobblestoned streets where, in the high summer of 1941, the Germans and their Ukrainian collaborators chased Jews to their deaths. The photos of those days are some of the most terrible of the Holocaust – women being stripped and beaten before jeering mobs, eyes wide in horror, mouths frozen in mid-scream.

It was a reality framed in scathing terms by the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky when he addressed the Security Council of the United Nations this week. He reminded his audience that the UN had been established in 1945 to guarantee peace after the horrors of World War Two.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses a UN Security Council meeting in New York, 4 April 2022IMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES
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Russia was turning ‘the right of veto in the UN Security Council into a right to kill’ – President Volodymyr Zelensky told the council on 4 April

Listing allegations of war crimes by Russian troops in Ukraine – summary killings, torture, rape – he called for the council to order a war crimes investigation.

“Are you ready to close the UN?” he asked. “Do you think that the time of international law is gone? If your answer is no, then you need to act immediately.”

The threat to the peace of Europe is greater now than at any time since the end of the Cold War in 1989. For nearly a month, I watched families flee westward from Lviv in trains, cars and buses as Russia waged war on their homeland. I listened to survivors from the besieged port of Mariupol talk of a hell on earth with bodies lying in the streets and the cityscape they knew, of shops, restaurants, the Hurov Park with its spectacular fountains, reduced to rubble.

Less than a year ago, I walked through the Hurov with Lyubov Vasilievna and Dominic, her two-year-old grandson. I have known Lyubov for eight years, since the day she was wounded and two other grandchildren – Nikita, 10, and Karolina, six – were killed at the war’s beginning in 2014 after Russian-backed forces staged a rebellion in eastern Ukraine against the Kyiv government.

The three of them had been out walking when a shell exploded. In hospital, Lyubov told me she blamed herself for their deaths. “I don’t know how I am going to survive this. The images of them are always in front of my eyes,” she said.

So, it was heartening to meet her again last year, in a time of relative peace, with a new grandchild. “I am smiling because I live for him now,” she told me. “I have someone to take care of. He brings me joy.”

Now, as Mariupol is being destroyed, I do not know what has happened to Lyubov and Dominic. I have called and called, but her phone no longer rings.

Aerial view of devastated area of Mariupol, 29 MarchIMAGE SOURCE,MAXAR/ GETTY IMAGES
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A bird’s eye view of dozens of destroyed homes in Mariupol

Every day at Lviv railway station I watched for their faces in the crowds of refugees, but there was no sign. Lyubov and Dominic, and the dead Nikita and Karolina, are among many millions failed by history’s greatest broken promise. It was made in the aftermath of World War Two and is firmly rooted in the story of Lviv.

In the far western corner of Ukraine, Lviv is a city to remind us of the worst of mankind, but also of what can be done to protect us from the consequences of aggression.

Walk five minutes west from the ruins of the synagogue and you reach a squat two-storey building that was the cradle of the world’s most important human rights legislation – the very principles under which President Putin and his armies might yet face judgement.

The law faculty of the University of Lviv was the alma mater of Raphael Lemkin who invented the word genocide to describe the attempt to exterminate “in whole or in part” a national, religious or racial group. Aghast at the Nazi Holocaust Lemkin coined the term in 1944 and, four years later, succeeded in having the UN define genocide as a crime under international law.

His fellow alumnus, Hersch Lauterpacht, was instrumental in bringing about the legal concept of crimes against humanity which was first used to prosecute Nazi leaders at the Nuremberg trials in 1945-46.

Both men were Jewish and studied in Lviv in the early decades of the 20th Century. Lviv was called Lemberg then and was a city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, home to a cosmopolitan mix of Poles, Ukrainians, Russians and other nationalities from across the empire.

World War One destroyed Austria-Hungary and ushered in an age of instability as Poles, Ukrainians, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany fought for control of the city. The majority of the remaining Jewish population was wiped out in the Holocaust, among them the relatives of Lemkin and Lauterpacht.

Lviv's Jewish ghetto, created by the Nazis, during WW2 - when nearly all the city's Jews were murderedIMAGE SOURCE,ALAMY
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Lviv’s Jewish ghetto, created by the Nazis, during WW2 – when nearly all the city’s Jews were murdered

At the end of World War Two, Lviv came under the rule of the Soviet Union, where it remained until the fall of communism and the creation of an independent Ukraine in 1991.

Although they differed in important respects – Lemkin argued in favour of group protections, Lauterpacht focused on individual rights – their legacies were enshrined in the 1945 UN Charter, which promised to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war which, twice in our lifetimes, has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person…”

Now, Lviv finds itself once more at the centre of a great historical trauma.

I think of that phrase – “the dignity and worth of the human person” – after watching people fight to board trains in the early days of the evacuation of Ukraine. I remember it when I see the images of executed civilians in Bucha, and I wonder what has happened to the dream of the lawyers from Lviv?

We are living in an age where millions are displaced by war. I have seen them jumping from smugglers’ boats into the shallows on a Greek beach, shouting with joy that “God is Great”. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar and Yemen, I have heard civilian victims describe cruel military campaigns.

According to the most recent UN statistics – gathered before the Russian invasion of Ukraine – 84 million people are now forcibly displaced worldwide. The figures reflect an international order in crisis with the UN unable to prevent the murder and abuse of civilians in many regions of the world.

To understand how we have come to this point it is necessary to go back a little to one of the most terrible crimes of our modern era.