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War crimes and genocidal intent in the heart of Europe

Amanda Paul

Date: 27/06/2022
Putin’s brutal war in Ukraine must not go unpunished. No matter how long it takes, no stone should be left unturned to ensure that those responsible for war crimes and inciting genocide face justice.

Since Russia’s war began on 24 February, unimaginable acts of barbaric cruelty have been carried out against the Ukrainian people. Moscow is not only committing grotesque war crimes and crimes against humanity but also inciting genocide and intending to destroy the Ukrainian people. 

Those responsible, including President Putin, must be held accountable. The EU and other international actors have a crucial role to play in seeking justice, such as continuing to provide all the necessary human and budgetary resources and administrative, investigative and logistical support to Ukraine in the long term

Putin’s death machine 

The Kremlin’s indiscriminate bombardment of civilian targets – schools, hospitals, shopping malls and maternity wards, apartment blocks and houses – is clear evidence that Putin wants to exterminate the Ukrainian people. Russian troops have gone out of their way to commit grotesque crimes against innocent civilians. Millions are under relentless attack in besieged cities and towns. Evacuation routes are targeted. Russian forces are shelling, slaughtering, torturing, raping and starving civilians, including children. There are cases of children being forcibly deported to Russia, equating to a crime against humanity. The repeated use of illegal munitions, such as cluster bombs, is well documented. Ukrainians are being brutally interrogated in Russian ‘filtration camps’. 

Numerous mass graves have been unearthed. In the town of Bucha alone, more than 350 bodies were found. In the Port of Mariupol, now razed to the ground, at least 21,000 civilians were killed. Extensive evidence of summary executions, other unlawful killings, enforced disappearances and torture – all of which constitute war crimes – have been documented, including in Staryi Bykiv and the Sumy and Chernihiv regions. Furthermore, Russian-backed separatists’ death sentences given to three foreign members of the Ukrainian forces are also a blatant violation of international law. 

Following in Stalin’s footsteps 

Food is being weaponised. In the 1930s, Stalin starved millions of Ukrainians to death with a ruthless policy of food confiscation known as the Holodomor. Putin does the same today.  

Russia is deliberately targeting Ukrainian food storage facilities, supermarkets and agricultural machinery. They are mining agricultural land to prevent farmers from ploughing and planting. Livestock is being killed. Ukrainian supply chains are being decimated or disrupted as railway lines and trains are targeted, making it difficult or even impossible to deliver food to some areas. Russia has also been accused of stealing grain from Ukraine to sell for profit. Looting is another war crime.  

Furthermore, Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea and grain shipments has created a global food crisis. Millions now face starvation, particularly in Africa. 

War crimes and genocidal intent 

There is no question that war crimes and crimes against humanity are being committed on a massive scale. Indeed, Russia has perpetrated war crimes in Ukraine since its 2014 annexation of Crimea and manufactured war in the Donbas. And it is yet to face justice.  

There is also clear proof of genocidal intent. Legally, a genocide constitutes actions to exterminate a group in whole or in part, and (some) intention to do so. While genocide is frequently equated with mass slaughter, this is incorrect. Rather, it is defined by the enormity of criminal intent.  

The Kremlin’s intent is crystal clear. Not only Russia has done the deed, but it has even confessed to the fact. Putin’s hatred of Ukraine’s existence as a sovereign state is no secret. He and other top Russian officials regularly use dehumanising, anti-Ukrainian rhetoric, including likening Ukrainians to gnats. This points to genocidal intent. Putin spelt out his goal – the complete elimination of the Ukrainian nation and people – most recently when comparing himself to Peter the Great and his quest to “take back Russian lands”. Such statements violate several articles of the UN Genocide Convention. 

In fact, throughout its history, Ukraine has faced genocidal attacks and attempts to eliminate the Ukrainian identity. This trend of subjugation must finally come to an end. Russia must pay the price for Putin’s evil crimes. He and his cronies must be trialled and imprisoned. Russia must also pay reparations for its crimes, as laid out in the Hague Conventions

Preserving evidence of war crimes   

Ukraine has documented war crimes since the war broke. Led by the Office of the Prosecutor General, a list of around 16,000 cases has been compiled. Some Russian soldiers have already been trialled and convicted. However, to make this documentation process as credible and transparent as possible, international actors also need to be involved.  

Ukraine has witnessed a huge international commitment since the start of the war. Different mechanisms and initiatives were set up to investigate, collect, document and preserve evidence of war crimes. However, this will be a long and difficult process, not least because of the sheer scale of the crimes, the number of human resources required to carry out investigations and document evidence effectively, and because Russia is actively destroying evidence. 

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has taken the lead in investigating and documenting the war crimes. It opened an investigation following a request from 39 member states. Its largest-ever investigative team of 42 went to Ukraine, working with local authorities to improve the gathering of witness testimony and identification of forensic materials, and ensure that evidence is collected so as to strengthen its admissibility in future proceedings. The UN Human Rights Council created an Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine to investigate all allegations of violations and abuses of human rights. Various countries have also established investigative teams to probe incidents that could constitute war crimes. 

The EU is also playing an important role. In May, the European Council adopted new rules which allow Eurojust, the EU Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation, to collect and preserve evidence of war crimes in cooperation with the ICC. In fact, Eurojust is in the process of being equipped to serve as the central hub for preserving, storing and analysing evidence. The European Commission also launched a €7.25-million project under its Foreign Policy Instruments to support the ICC’s investigation capacities. Ukrainian civil society is also actively engaged. National and regional networks are documenting local atrocities.   

The coordination and exchange of evidence between the different actors ensure the effectiveness of these investigations. Supporting Ukraine’s investigations are also vital to ensure a speedy and effective process that complies with international standards. Finally, it is important to ascertain the chain of command – including whether a leader authorised an atrocity, or turned a blind eye – for future trials. 

Ensuring that evidence of war crimes is well preserved and documented for future prosecution is a priority. Speed is also of the essence because there is a serious risk that, due to the ongoing hostilities, evidence related to war crimes is being destroyed.  

Getting justice 

While Ukraine has brought cases against Russia to the International Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights since the invasion, the ICC is the only international court that could hold individuals like Putin responsible. Yet while the ICC has a mandate to deal with charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, serious limitations remain. As Russia is not a state party to the Rome Statute, the ICC has no jurisdiction over Russia for the crime of aggression. In any case, Moscow would exercise its veto against a UN Security Council referral and in the ICC. Finally, the court cannot try defendants in absentia or while they remain heads of state.  

There are growing calls to create a special international tribunal to fill these gaps. Based on precedents like the 2002-13 Special Court for Sierra Leone and the 1945-46 Nuremberg Trials, it would investigate Russian leaders, military commanders and their allies for the crime of aggression. In May, Ukraine initiated the Special Criminal Tribunal for the Punishment of the Crime of Aggression against Ukraine and requested that the European Commission and EU member states support this initiative. 

Taking this proposal forward will take time, significant finance and rigorous pursuit. In the meantime, effectively collecting and preserving evidence should be the immediate priority. Many cases of Nazi war crimes took decades to reach a court. Thanks to preserved evidence and strong political will, individuals that thought they were free and safe spent their final days incarcerated. The same fate must await Putin and his cronies. The centuries-old cycle of war crimes and genocide in Ukraine must cease. 

Amanda Paul is a Senior Policy Analyst in the Europe in the World programme at the European Policy Centre.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

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