Foreign Affairs

Has Genocide Returned To Europe?

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Vladimir Putin has once again brought war to Europe, and now it appears that he has also brought the evil of genocide back to the continent.

The scale of war crimes committed by Russia is shocking, with reports of the following atrocities occurring across Ukraine every day:

Is it genocide?

Ukrainian forces discovered mass graves in Bucha containing the remains of more than 500 men, women, and children murdered by Russian troops in scenes reminiscent of 1995’s Srebrenica Massacre. Similar acts of violence have been playing out across Ukraine, raising the question of genocide.   

Genocide is defined by the Genocide Convention of 1948 as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. 

Genocide is not a term that should be used lightly and is an accusation that is often thrown around, overused, and misapplied (for example, by Putin when justifying the invasion). Genocide is often viewed as the ultimate crime, the most deprived and horrific act one nation could inflict upon another.

Such acts can involve the systematic murder of communities, preventing births within the group (e.g., forced sterilisation), forced relocations, forcible transferring of children to another group, making living conditions impossible (e.g., man-made famines such as the Holodomor, poisoning water supplies and shutting off electricity), mass rapes, and the destruction of a groups culture (e.g., destroying museums) in an attempt to eradicate everything about their victims and denying their existence as a distinct people.

It is the most abhorrent crime in international law, and those responsible in whatever capacity need to be punished in accordance with international law, from soldiers on the ground to Putin himself. 

In his speech given just before the invasion of Ukraine, Putin denied the existence of the Ukrainian state. This, combined with rhetoric in Russian media, suggests that the violence is, at least partially, motivated by the desire to destroy the Ukrainian nation and by extension her people. 

Eugene Finkel, an expert in genocide at John Hopkins University, told The Washington Post: “They’re (Russian media are) talking about destroying Ukrainians as a group, Ukraine as a state and identity community.”  

Finkel’s concerns are mirrored by Gregory Stanton, the founder of Genocide Watch: “We’ve got a very clear, systematic pattern of actions that the foreseeable consequences of are to destroy part of a national group, namely the Ukrainian group.”

If Putin is ever captured, his trial will likely last years due to the scale of the crimes committed and the complex web of legal responsibility involved in these crimes – this is one of the reasons Nazi war criminals were still prosecuted as recently as last year. Hence why is it so important to begin legal proceedings against Putin and his regime as soon as possible.

On 2nd March, the Prosecutor for the International Criminal Court (ICC) launched a full investigation of suspected atrocities following an unprecedented number of requests by member states.  Also, the United Nations Human Rights Council (of which Russia was suspended on 7th April) set up the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine and the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine to closely monitor the unfolding situation in Ukraine.

The European Court of Human Rights (who has also suspended Russia), in Strasbourg, has also told Russia to stop attacking civilians and start ensuring access to humanitarian aid. The United Nation’s highest court, the International Court of Justice, also ordered Russia to suspend military operations in Ukraine. Many countries around the world, including the UK, have also opened their own investigations. 

Most of the evidence collection for any future tribunals would need to be done by Ukraine itself. Ukraine’s chief prosecutor, Iryna Venediktova and her team of around 50 prosecutors have been working day and night collecting as much evidence as they can to hold as many war criminals as they can to account. They have already opened over 8,000 criminal investigations related to the war and identified over 500 suspects including Russian ministers, commanders and propagandists.

As wars go, the on-going conflict in Ukraine is black-and-white in terms of who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Russia has become the new Nazi Germany and the “Z” may become as symbolically evil as the swastika to future generations. However, this dichotomy is at the state level at is not representative of individuals. There are certainly bad Ukrainians (the Azov Battalion for example) and good Russians who are just as horrified by what is happening as we are.  

Legal experts are currently divided over whether Russian atrocities in Ukraine should be classified as genocide at this point. Regardless of whether you consider these crimes genocide in the legal sense, the outcomes of Putin’s campaign of terror are the same. Hundreds of people are dying every day, homes are being destroyed, and entire cities are being deprived of food and water. To quote Stanton: “If you wait till a genocide is over and you have cases in courts, it’s too late, because the genocide is already accomplished”. It was too late for the Jews in the 1940’s and for the Rwandans in 1994.

It can not be too late for the Ukrainians in 2022.   

Speaking at the 1948 Tokyo War Crimes Trials, the American Chief Prosecutor Joseph Keenan issued the following indictment: “It is high time that the promoters of aggressive, ruthless War and treaty-breakers should be stripped of the glamour of national heroes and exposed as what they really are—plain, ordinary murderers.”

This assessment was true then and still holds true today. Putin and his followers are murderers and they need to be exposed as such.

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