On the first day of hearings into its case against Russia at the International Court of Justice, Ukraine presented a weight of arguments and examples to back its accusations against Russia over its annexation of Crimea and gross violations of human rights under occupation, and over its financing of terrorism in the Donbas. While Russia denies all charges, Ukraine’s case is backed by documents from the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, international human rights organizations, as well as NATO satellite imagery.
Russia is likely to argue that the court does not have jurisdiction, hoping that the ICJ will agree to this, as it did in 2011 over the war between Georgia and Russia. It is, of course, for the court to decide, but the situation this time seems quite different for a number of reasons. One of the key focuses in Ukraine’s suit is on the compelling evidence of grave erosion of fundamental rights and liberties in Crimea under Russian occupation. It is no accident that human rights activists played a considerable part in compiling evidence for the court.
If the court does agree that there is a case to answer, examination of all the evidence could take several years, and both the military conflict in Donbas, and the discrimination and political persecution in Crimea are ongoing. For this reason, Ukraine’s lawyers on the first day of hearings, March 6, stressed the need for specific provisional measures now to prevent still further irreparable damage.
In a 45-page document, Ukraine presents its reasons for accusing Russia of violating two U.N. conventions, namely the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Although the International Court of Justice has no instruments to enforce its judgements, the very fact of it finding against Russia would have enormous weight. ICJ is the official judicial organ of the United Nations, of which Russia has been a member since 1945. It cannot now turn around and say that it won’t accept its authority. This was precisely what Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to do with the International Criminal Court a day after its chief prosecutor published her preliminary conclusion that Russia’s annexation of Crimea constituted an international military conflict between the Russian Federation and Ukraine. Mr. Putin’s instruction made headlines, but in fact had little legal meaning.
Neither Russia nor Ukraine have yet ratified the Rome Statute, which would make them members of the International Criminal Court, however Ukraine has accepted its full jurisdiction over the events in the Donbas and Crimea. Russia can petulantly refuse to “play,” but this does not remove its accountability.
A judgement against Russia may not force the latter to stop its aggression and its rights violations, but it would be another strong argument against those politicians in other countries who have expressed willingness to make deals with Russia involving at least Ukraine’s tacit acceptance of Russian rule in Crimea. Just the outline of repression and terror tactics in Crimea given on March 6 make it clear why that cannot be accepted.
Ukraine maintains that the Russian Federation’s interference in Ukraine’s affairs escalated massively in 2014. Since that time, “Russia’s military intervention and financing of acts of terrorism have violated the rights of millions of Ukrainian citizens, including, for all too many, their right to life.”
In eastern Ukraine, Russia is accused of systematically supplying militants of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” with “heavy weaponry, money, personnel, training and other support.”
All of this has resulted in civilian, as well as military, casualties. Nor were the victims only Ukrainian. On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was downed over militant-controlled Donbas and 298 people were killed. The militants immediately contacted Russian media, boasting of shooting down a Ukrainian military plane. Later that evening, Russian state-controlled media tried to remove the incriminating video footage. Russia has since denied any involvement. This was not the finding of an international team of experts.
Russia has not declared war against Ukraine, yet its military personnel are known to be deployed in Ukraine, as are very large contingents of mercenaries. Ukraine states that it has “made repeated requests to the Russian Federation, under the framework of the Terrorism Financing Convention, to halt all forms of support for terrorism, including the supply of weapons, money and other materials across its border; to stop the fund-raising efforts for Russian-backed illegal armed groups routed through Russian banks; and to help bring public and private individuals to justice for financing terrorism.”
Worth noting that, while Britain, Latvia, and now, seemingly, Spain are prosecuting their own citizens who have fought on the side of the Russian-backed militants, Russia’s only prosecution has been of a Russian fighting alongside the Ukrainian army. Mercenaries like Arseny Pavlo, or “Motorola,” who had been wanted for war crimes in Ukraine, is hailed as a “slain hero” in Russia.
A large part of the lawyers’ presentation on March 6 focused on Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the repressive and discriminatory measures used against Crimean Tatars, ethnic Ukrainians and others. The ICJ is asked to find that the Russian Federation has violated its obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination [CERD].
The grounds have been extensively reported here. They include Russia’s banning of the Mejlis, the self-governing body of the Crimean Tatar people, and persecution of specific members of the Mejlis, including deputy heads Akhtem Chiygoz and Ilmi Umerov; the prohibition on Crimean Tatars gathering to commemorate the victims of Stalin’s deportation of 1944; the abductions, disappearances and murder of Crimean Tatars and civic activists; and much more.
Both Crimean Tatar and ethnic Ukrainian media have been suppressed and those nationalities’ languages, cultural heritages and traditions are all under attack.
In her address to the International Court of Justice, Olena Zerkal, Ukraine’s deputy foreign affairs minister for European integration, asked the court to adopt temporary measures to prevent irreversible human rights violations while the case is being heard.
Thousands of Ukrainians have already faced deadly attacks, and millions remain in immediate peril.
“I am standing before the court today and asking it to defend the basic rights of the Ukrainian people. We demand justice and international legal liability while the Russian Federation is continuing to demonstrate contempt for its duties under international agreements. As a result, the Ukrainian people are subjected to an ongoing campaign of terror and cultural destruction. The situation is truly terrible,” she underscored.