Russia Is Attempting Genocide in Ukraine

The fundamental objective of the Genocide Convention is prevention, as its title, the “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,” reflects, and as Article I expressly proscribes. The International Criminal Court (ICC) determined in the 2002 Rome Statute that a state’s responsibility to prevent genocide, and the concurrent duty to act, is activated the moment the state becomes aware, or should have become aware, of a serious risk that genocide may occur. This preventive obligation extends beyond a state’s territorial boundaries, applying wherever it might be able to act appropriately.

That’s a big obligation on the part of state parties, and one they’ve often failed to meet, most notoriously in Rwanda and Bosnia. But Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine offers a clear challenge to the signatories of the Genocide Convention—which include Russia itself—to act to prevent genocide. The risk of genocide in Ukraine was brutally clear last year; today, the invasion should be framed not only as a potential genocide but as an ongoing one, the evidence for which our recent work at the New Lines Institute and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre lays out in detail in a new report that concludes the Russian Federation has actively commissioned genocide in Ukraine.

Ukrainians are living through a period of historic torment. In Bucha in spring 2022, a well-documented massacre took place. The same year, thousands of Ukrainian children were taken to Russia for forced adoptions to stop them coalescing as a single identity group. Though these crimes are widely acknowledged, despite Russia’s best efforts at denial, the standard of proof required at the ICC to create such a legal obligation is very high—proportionate to the severity of the offense—and sound legal argument is needed to connect the evidence to the legal text of the relevant articles.

Seeing the desperate need for evidence to be assembled to a legally actionable standard, in May 2022, the New Lines Institute and Raoul Wallenberg Centre’s independent legal inquiry found reasonable grounds to believe that Russia had engaged in “direct and public incitement to commit genocide” and a “pattern of atrocities” leading to an “inference of intent to destroy the Ukrainian national group in part” or in whole. Russia’s intent was clear in the use of language including “de-Nazification,” “de-Satanization,” and the construction of Ukrainians as an existential threat in attempts to warrant their destruction as a recognized group.

Russia continues to employ the strategy of “accusation in a mirror,” a common historical tactic in genocide incitement. This method involves the perpetrator blaming the victims for plotting or committing atrocities, thus framing violence against the victims as preemptive action. Two of the most influential state-controlled media networks, RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik, have played a significant role in promoting incitement to genocide against the Ukrainian group. Their top editors and hosts—including RT editor in chief Margarita Simonyan and host Vladimir Solovyov—regularly use their platforms to disseminate harmful messages and narratives, such as claiming Ukrainians were in fact Russian people possessed by the devil, and if they could not be exorcized, “We will kill as many of you as we have to. We will kill 1 million or 5 million, we can exterminate all of you.”

Notably, these media organizations have not restricted their propaganda to Russian speakers. They broadcast in multiple languages, extending their reach to a global audience and allowing them to shape international perceptions. This international propagation of incitement presents a unique challenge and represents a substantial evolution of the propaganda strategies used in past genocides. Less conventional media sources—including Telegram, a social media platform widely used in Russia and beyond—have emerged as primary venues for spreading incitement. High-ranking Russian officials, such as Dmitry Medvedev, have maintained active channels with millions of followers, routinely broadcasting eliminationist and dehumanizing language.

This wider dissemination of hate speech and incitement through social media platforms has the potential to mobilize large numbers of people to participate in or support genocidal actions. It also contributes to normalizing hateful rhetoric, which could further desensitize the public to the gravity of the situation and the potential consequences for the Ukrainian national group. This report further strengthens the claim that Russia is directly and publicly inciting genocide, thereby violating Article III(c) of the Genocide Convention. The analysis includes instances of hate speech, propagation of historical revisionism and ultranationalist narratives, and dehumanization of the Ukrainian national group by Russian state actors.

That report recognized the existence of a serious risk of genocide in Ukraine, which accordingly triggered the legal obligation of all states to prevent genocide. Last week, a new report offered a grim update. Our new legal argument extends beyond incitement to the question of the actual commission of genocide, separate crimes under Article III of the Genocide Convention. The evidence presented compels us to conclude that the Russian Federation has not only incited but committed genocide.

This new report, led by Dr. Kristina Hook, an expert in Russia-Ukraine relations and conflict management specialist, maintains consistency in methodology with the May 2022 investigation, updating it with verified open-source material while acknowledging the evolving situation on the ground. The Russian Federation has made no significant attempts to end its illicit invasion of Ukraine or terminate its public incitement against the Ukrainian national group. On the contrary, the current report identifies an escalated pattern of systematic atrocities that overwhelmingly suggests Russia is committing an ongoing genocide against the Ukrainian national group, in violation of the Genocide Convention.

The Genocide Convention places a clear legal obligation on all state parties, including Russia, to prevent genocide as soon as a serious risk arises or to halt it as it unfolds. The May 2022 report had already activated these state responsibilities, having definitively concluded that there was a significant risk of genocide, thereby triggering the duty to prevent.

From Feb. 24, 2022, to June 23, 2023, “the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) recorded 9,083 civilians killed,” the report said. The preliminary death toll within the Ukrainian national group already significantly exceeds the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum standard of 1,000 civilian deaths to meet the definition of a “mass killing,” despite being a likely underestimate of the true human cost.

The updated report emphasizes the weight of accumulated evidence indicating ongoing breaches by Russia of the Genocide Convention in Ukraine. The Nuremberg Tribunal’s principles of individual accountability are brought to light, aiming to support “parallel international criminal processes to hold individual perpetrators accountable for all core crimes, including genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and aggression.”

Given the non-judicial nature of the inquiry amid the ongoing war and the overarching investigative processes, this report applies a “reasonable grounds to believe” standard for questions concerning state breaches of the Genocide Convention. A secondary “conclusive” or “fully convincing” standard is utilized to show that the threshold of the existence of a serious risk of genocide has been met, subsequently triggering the duty of all states to act.

Crucially, the report presents strong evidence supporting Russia’s deliberate acts that aim to destroy, in whole or in part, the Ukrainian national group. The convention does not say the whole group has to be targeted but focuses on responsibility for peoples only under the control of the aggressor. For example, Nazi Germany’s policy was to eliminate the Jews, but it could only target Jews in countries where the party had control. It could not target Jews in Canada. This evidence includes but is not limited to: mass killings, torture, forced displacement, systematic sexual violence, and destruction of cultural heritage.

It emphasizes that these actions, combined with Russia’s systematic dehumanization and demonization of the Ukrainian national group, reasonably suggest genocidal intent. Russian soldiers and warfighters have participated directly in killing Ukrainian civilians through executions recorded in Bucha, Izium, Staryi Bykiv, and other locations.

Mass graves have also been discovered in multiple areas that Russian forces controlled prior to liberation by Ukrainian forces. In the first year of war, at least 5,000 ballistic missiles were fired into Ukrainian cities, per the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense. On April 28, 2023, a nine-story apartment building was struck with a cruise missile in the city of Uman. The attack took place at night, guaranteed to maximize civilian casualties.

Within the first year of the full-scale invasion, Russian state media reported that more than 5.3 million people had been relocated from Ukraine to Russia, including over 738,000 children, with Ukrainian estimates of between 150,000 and 300,000 children having been taken by force. The Yale School of Public Health has verified 43 camps for these children, of which all were identified as reeducation camps.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plan fails, many experts expect a further escalation of brutality. Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, believes that Putin’s goal is to “turn this back into a war of attrition … and hope that over time, war weariness drives the Ukrainians to quit.”

To accomplish that, some of Putin’s hawkish supporters have demanded a full mobilization, meaning a draft to replenish the armed forces with a formal declaration of war.

By organizing, examining, and categorizing the evidence in direct relation to the legal texts that Russia is committed to and the obligations that they create on the state parties, we have designed our new report to be as powerful a tool as possible for states and lawyers to use the Genocide Convention to the greatest possible effect.

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