The recognition by Ukraine of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to consider grave crimes allegedly perpetrated in its territory has led to the ICC Prosecutor’s preliminary examination identifying a wave of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.
There are claims of persecution, forced conscription, deportation, sham trials, enforced disappearances, and property seizure - in Crimea. As well as killings, torture, inhuman treatment, sexual violence, and indiscriminate shelling - in Donbas. The court now needs to decide whether to open a full investigation which could lead to charges against specific individuals, as in the trial currently taking place in the Netherlands over MH-17.
However, the ICC does remain a court of last resort as Ukraine retains the principal power to prosecute grave violations perpetrated in its eastern regions and Crimea, with the court only stepping in if Ukraine (or another court with jurisdiction) is either unwilling or unable to do so.
As the evidence mounts up, Ukrainian investigators, prosecutors and judges are becoming more open to cooperation with foreign experts, law firms, human rights NGOs and younger domestic professionals - a significant proportion of whom are women.
Transformation shows determination
This is an unusual shift, given the rigid hierarchical nature of post-Soviet institutions, with elderly males in most of the top positions. The transformation shows the determination to see perpetrators of crimes in Crimea and Donbas tried by the ICC, with joint professional development trainings and joint communications about the alleged crimes.
Ukraine has also been strengthening its institutions. The Prosecutor’s Office of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea has been improving quality control of its war crime proceedings, and has taken a strong pro-ICC stance. The Office of the Prosecutor General established a special department to monitor the armed conflict proceedings, and two specialised war crime units have been formed in Donbas.
Although too early to assess progress - given recent prosecution reform and that much-needed legislation on international crimes is still pending – these are promising signs of Ukraine’s intent to take a specialised approach to armed conflict violations. And Ukrainian civil society organisations are also playing a more important role, documenting alleged crimes and sending evidence to the ICC.
Any intervention by the ICC in Ukraine also has a considerable impact on the wider dynamics of addressing international crimes, further extending the court’s reach beyond a focus on Africa which has attracted widespread criticism since it began in 2002.
The ICC has already opened investigations in Georgia, Bangladesh/Myanmar, and Afghanistan, with preliminary examinations in Colombia, Venezuela, Iraq/UK, Palestine, and The Philippines. But the Ukrainian case would further develop the European subtleties of the court’s jurisprudence.
Although the ICC is currently investigating the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, the active phase of that armed conflict lasted for just five days whereas Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine has been ongoing for the six years. The temporal difference in no way diminishes the suffering of victims and the necessity for the proper investigation, prosecution and compensation in the Georgian context.
And yet, going by even the preliminary findings of the ICC prosecutor, the spectrum of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly perpetrated in Ukraine is much wider. Some incidents, such as the illegal construction of the Crimean Bridge, is an amalgam of the violations against property, cultural heritage and the environment. Cumulatively, the Ukrainian and Georgian cases would substantially contribute to the development of the court’s emerging European lenses.
The Russia-Ukraine armed conflict is also the first instance of armed hostilities of such magnitude and duration in Europe since World War II and the Yugoslav Wars. The ICC’s readiness to take on such geopolitically challenging cases which leave itself open to attack will be tested.
But by examining new contexts - including Ukraine - the ICC would develop a more layered reading of the nature and scope of the crimes it works on. For example, alleged indoctrination and use of children by armed groups in eastern Ukraine is likely to differ from the known practices of abducting and recruiting child soldiers in Africa.
Investigating evidence of Russia’s persecution of pro-Ukrainian activists - forcing them out of Crimea - coupled with the creation of favourable conditions for Russian citizens to relocate to Crimea could lead to proving the existence of a policy of mass colonisation of the peninsula - adding new layers to the court’s jurisprudence on population displacement. And previously under-prosecuted crimes may come to the fore, such as attacks on cultural property or causing the destruction of the environment.
Although the ICC proceedings on Ukraine – along with those being held by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) - are unlikely to bring immediate results, Ukraine has developed an international adjudication strategy based on the available viable options and what can be practically delivered.
The simple act of a reputed international court outlining Russia’s alleged violations in Crimea and Donbas and naming those individually responsible would be an impactful achievement in itself, regardless of whether Russia pays any attention or compensation.
And any international judgments or those of domestic courts such as the Dutch MH-17 proceedings and Russia’s response - predicted to be non-compliance - is an important argument for continuing sanctions against Russia over its conduct in Ukraine.
The mutually reinforcing effect of both the Crimea and Donbas proceedings within Ukraine and at international courts should not be underestimated. These investigations into war crimes, terrorism and human rights issues are deeply relevant - not only for the conflict itself, but also for the development of international law.
Part One of this series assesses Ukraine’s efforts to hold Russia accountable as a state at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).