Russian international law violations and war crimes against Ukraine and its people
By carrying out a number of aggressive steps against Ukraine, the Russian Federation and its leadership have breached a number of international law norms that cover public international law, international humanitarian law, international human rights law and, international criminal law.
We highlight the most important violations, spanning from the annexation of Crimea, through war in Donbas, recognizing the independence of “Donetsk People’s Republic” (“DNR”) and “Luhansk People’s Republic” (“LNR”), administratively owned by Ukraine but long held by Russia-backed armed groups, then starting and running a full-scale armed conflict with Ukraine.
Public International Law
Russian Federation army had crossed Ukrainian borders on the pretext of alleged genocide of Russian-speaking minority in eastern Ukraine and the necessity to carry out “peacekeeping operation”. that neither sovereignty claims by unofficial DNR and LNR authorities, nor the recognition of the independence of the republics by the Russian authorities justifies Russian Federation’s acts in the context of applicable international laws.
By its aggressive actions towards Ukraine, constituting the crime of aggression, within the meaning of International Criminal Court, the Russian Federation has violated public international law including UN Charter, which states inter alia:
All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.
and other basic treaties:
- Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations
- Declaration on the Inadmissibility of Intervention in the Domestic Affairs of States and the Protection of Their Independence and Sovereignty
- Geneva Conventions (in particular the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, in the understanding of which hostilities in Ukraine constitute occupation, and its Protocol I of 1977 (Protocol I)
Charter of the United Nations
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine violates Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter, which prohibits the use of force against the territorial integrity of another state.
Not only is such act violative of Article 2 (1), but the process by which the invasion has taken place is also in violation of Article 1(1), Article 1(2), and Article 2(4) – all of which recognize sovereignty as the key principle of international relations, and calls for the maintenance of international peace and security through restraint in the use of force or the threat of use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.
The activities of the Russian Federation are also a violation of the statutory documents of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE and Council of Europe, of which both Russia and Ukraine remain members.
Russia’s aggression also constitutes a renewed violation of the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, under which Russia, the US and the UK have granted Ukraine a guarantee of territorial integrity in exchange for its abandonment of its nuclear weapons arsenal. Being the guarantor of Ukraine’s security on the basis of the Memorandum, Russia became an aggressor against it.
By supporting separatist groups in eastern Ukraine territories, according to the terminology of the following treaties, the Russian Federation also violated the norms of international anti-terrorism law – the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism of 1999 and the Declaration on Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism of 1994.
International Humanitarian Law
In addition to the already mentioned Geneva Conventions, Ukraine and Russian Federation are both bind many number of international humanitarian law treaties:
The general principles of the treaties boil down to that entities conducting military operations should make every effort to ensure that these operations affect the civilian population as little as possible. It is forbidden to use force against civilians and civilian infrastructure (homes, schools, religious establishments, cultural and business facilities) as long as they are not used for military purposes. Treaties also impose on the parties to armed conflicts the obligation to select appropriate military measures – those that will not result in a threat to the population and civilian facilities (e.g. bombing a military facility in the immediate vicinity of civilian buildings is forbidden).
In the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the Russians use methods that constitute war crimes and violate the basic rights of the civilian population. According to press reports, Russians forced the civilian population to board buses, which then preceded Russian forces on their way to Kiev. Such action is known as “shielding” which consists in using the civilian population for military needs in the form of protecting specific points, positions, areas of military operations or military forces from enemy attack. The Russians forced the civilian population to board buses, which then preceded Russian forces on their way to Kiev. In addition to the above, the Russians commit many other war crimes:
- shooting of defenseless civilians, including children
- Indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas – using heavy artillery weapons in civilian facilities, including educational facilities (shelling of kindergarten in Stanytsia Luhanska, school in Vrubivka and Gorlovka, residential apartment in Kyiv)
- thermobaric bombs, banned by the Geneva Convention, were used by the Russians in the area of Ochtyrka city (thermobaric bombs create powerful, high-temperature explosions that can damage internal organs)
- the use of butterfly mines, banned by Geneva Convention,
- the use of cluster bombs, being wide-area explosive missiles, in densely populated areas – although Russia has not joined the Convention on Cluster Munitions of 2008, use of cluster bombs in close proximity to civilian facilities is a violation of international law. In order to potentially neutralize military facilities, military entities are required to use precision-guided weapons.
International Criminal Law – will Putin be tried?
Since February 22, 2022, hundreds of violations of the norms of international law have been committed in the territory of Ukraine as part of the military operations of the Russian troops, and many of those violations constituted war crimes. In this respect, the situation, unfortunately, does not differ from the one that took place during the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
On February 27, 2022, Ukraine has filed a suit against Russia at the UN.’s highest court – International Criminal Court (ICC). “Russia must be held accountable for manipulating the notion of genocide to justify aggression,” President Zelensky said.
The suggestion by President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials that Russia’s use of force is justified under Article 51 of the UN Charter has no support in fact or law.
Unfortunately, despite being UN Member, Russian Federation cannot be subject to ICC jurisdiction, being governed by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court of 1998. Russia signed the Rome statute in 2000, but its implementation required internal ratification, which never happened. Then, in 2016, Russian Federation withdrawn from the process of joining ICC jurisdiction, as the ratification could result in the initiation of a process regarding Russian actions in Crimea in 2014, which were recognized by the ICC as an armed conflict and ongoing occupation by Russian Federation.
Russian representatives responsibility
However, Russian representatives responsible for the invasion and mentioned deeds on Ukrainian territory may also be prosecuted under the universal jurisdiction principle. Such a procedure means that any representative of the Russian regime can be tried under any country’s domestical judicial system, even if they were not committed on its territory. It is agreed under customary international law, countries are allowed to put to trial those responsible for crimes against humanity and genocide regardless of where they were committed. For this to happen, nonetheless, such a person would have to be captured on the territory of another country, apart from Russia.
While Russia is not a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, Ukraine is a signatory to it. The ruthless attacks against the civilian population, excessive and incidental death, injury, or damage also finds a place to invite the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. Under a combined reading of Articles 8(2)(b)(i), 8(2)(e)(i) and Article 8(2)(b)(iv) of the Statute, any intentional attack against civilian populations and objects amounts to a war crime.
International Human Rights Law
- European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR),
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR),
- Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT)