Can Ukraine’s Appeal to the International Courts Work?

First in a two-part series analysing why Ukraine’s attempts at international justice are worth taking - and outlining how the impact goes far beyond just the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Part one examines the response of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to the possibility of holding Russia accountable as a state.

Expert comment Published 3 April 2020 Updated 25 August 2021 3 minute READ

Kateryna Busol

Former Academy Associate, Russia and Eurasia Programme

Rally in support of keeping Crimea as part of Ukraine. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Rally in support of keeping Crimea as part of Ukraine. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Russia’s ongoing occupation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and support of separatist hostilities in the eastern provinces of Donbas have resulted in 1.5 million internally displaced persons, 3,000 civilians killed, and a growing list of alleged violations of international law and socio-economic hardship.

But Ukraine is struggling in its efforts to hold Russia accountable – either as a state or through individual criminal responsibility - as it cannot unilaterally ask any international court to give an overall judgment on the conflict.

So it focuses on narrower issues, referring them to authorised adjudication and arbitration platforms such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ), European Court of Human Rights, UNCLOS arbitration, and the International Criminal Court (ICC). These options are limited, but still worth taking - and their relevance is proving to be far wider than the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Policy of cultural eradication

In 2017, Ukraine initiated proceedings against Russia at the ICJ on the basis of two international treaties: the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), with regard to Crimea; and the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism (ICSFT), with regard to Donbas.

Under the CERD, Ukraine alleges Russia has carried out a policy of cultural eradication of ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars in Crimea, including enforced disappearances, no education in the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar languages, and the ban of the Mejlis, the main representative body of the Crimean Tatars.

Under the ICSFT, Ukraine alleges Russia has supported terrorism by providing funds, weapons and training to illegal armed groups in eastern Ukraine. In particular Ukraine alleges Russian state responsibility - through its proxies - for downing the infamous MH17 flight.

Both these treaties are binding upon Ukraine and Russia and entitle an individual state party to refer a dispute concerning them to the ICJ, but certain procedural pre-conditions must first be exhausted. These include a failed attempt to settle a dispute either through negotiations or the CERD Committee (for the CERD) or unsuccessful negotiations and arbitration (for the ICSFT).

Russia challenged Ukraine’s compliance with the pre-conditions, but the ICJ disagreed with Russia’s submission that Ukraine had to resort both to negotiations and to the CERD Committee. For the first time, the court clarified these procedures under the CERD were two means to reach the same aim, and therefore alternative and not cumulative.

Requiring states to avail of both procedures before going to the ICJ would undermine the very purpose of the CERD to eliminate racial discrimination promptly, and ensure the availability of effective domestic protection and remedies.

The relevance of this clarification transcends the Ukraine-Russia dispute. With the rise of discriminatory practices, from populist hate-filled rhetoric endangering vulnerable communities to large-scale persecution such as that of the Rohingyas, the UN’s principal judicial body is sending a clear larger message to the world: such practices are unacceptable and must be dealt with expeditiously and efficiently. If states fail to do so, there are now fewer procedural impediments to do it internationally.

The ICJ also confirmed Ukraine had complied with both procedural preconditions under the ICSFT and that it would give judgement on the alleged failure of Russia to take measures to prevent the financing of terrorism. The outcome of this will be of great importance to the international community, given the general lack of international jurisprudence on issues of terrorism.

The court’s interpretation of knowledge and intent in terrorism financing, as well as clarification of the term ‘funds’, is particularly relevant both for the Ukraine-Russia case and for international law.

As the final judgement may take several years, the ICJ granted some provisional measures requested by Ukraine in April 2017. The court obliged Russia to ensure the availability of education in Ukrainian and enable the functioning of the Crimean Tatar representative institutions, including the Mejlis.

When Russia contested Ukraine’s references to the alleged Stalin-ordered deportation of the Crimean Tatars and the rule of law in the Soviet Union being hypocritical, by arguing that history did not matter, the court disagreed.

In fact, Judge James Crawford emphasised the relevance of the ‘historical persecution’ of Crimean Tatars and the role of Mejlis in advancing and protecting their rights in Crimea ‘at the time of disruption and change’.

These conclusions are important reminders that the historical inheritance of injustices inflicted on vulnerable groups should be taken into account when nations address their imperial legacies.

The court’s provisional measures and Judge Crawford’s position are particularly relevant in light of Russia’s policy of the total - territorial, historical, cultural – ‘russification’ of Crimea, as they highlight the role of the historical background for assessing the alleged discriminatory and prosecutorial policy of Russia’s occupying authorities against the Crimean Tatars.

The ICJ’s judgement on the merits of this as well as other human rights, and terrorism issues of Crimea and Donbas will be an important consideration for the international community in its view of the Russia-Ukraine armed conflict and the sanctions policy against Russia.

The development of this case also has a mutually catalysing impact on Ukraine’s efforts to establish those individually criminally responsible for atrocities in Crimea and Donbas, through domestic proceedings and through the International Criminal Court.

Ukraine’s attempts to seek individual criminal responsibility for gross abuses in Donbas and Crimea at the International Criminal Court (ICC) are assessed in part two of this series, coming soon.