The ongoing Russian war of aggression against Ukraine has not only upended an era of perceived geopolitical stability in Europe, but has also created a humanitarian crisis of devastating proportions. The urgency of the situation has been met by an unprecedented activation of accountability mechanisms and initiatives, both at the international and national level, to address substantiated evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed within the conflict.
Thus far, the war has produced a massive catalog of blatant violations of international law, which, in light of the clouded information landscape of militarized conflict, almost certainly carries beneath it a “dark number” of undocumented abuses that is even larger. Beyond the international crime of aggression committed by the Russian regime in invading Ukraine, along with the direct torture and killing of Ukrainian civilians, accounts of sexual and gender-based violence – crimes that have historically been under-investigated within the context of war – continue to proliferate.
To address this situation, some crucial questions remain. How can legal authorities effectively coordinate in building cases while focusing their efforts on high-level perpetrators and the structural dimensions of the crimes committed? How can civil society critically engage with the ongoing investigations to ensure that survivor-centered approaches are adopted? What steps need to be taken to further advance international criminal justice as a whole, in order to avoid double standards and ensure that international crimes are also effectively prosecuted in other contexts?
In this dossier, we provide an overview of the international legal situation concerning criminal justice in the Russian-Ukrainian war, along with material that assesses various obstacles and pathways to the prosecution of war crimes and human rights violations arising from the conflict. With partners in Ukraine and other countries, ECCHR is currently pursuing several cases concerning Ukraine that are explained below. This site is intended to be continually under development and will be updated and expanded as more information becomes available.
ECCHR is currently involved in several cases, as well as open-source investigative collaborations, concerning international crimes committed in the war. In cooperation with our partners, our casework supports survivors in their efforts to pursue accountability for such crimes as conflict-related sexual violence, a deadly missile strike on civilian infrastructure, and the killing of Lithuanian filmmaker Mantas Kvedaravičius in the siege of Mariupol, among others.
In order to bridge the gap between legal expertise and the collection, analysis, and verification of digital evidence, ECCHR is working with partners Mnemonic/Ukrainian Archive and Ukrainian Legal Advisory Group on case-specific evidence reports from multiple media sources, with a particular focus on ensuring their evidentiary value in investigative proceedings.
Due to the restrictive circumstances of war-time conflict, both the gathering and the dissemination of information related to cases and investigations must contend with unique obstacles. Thus, our casework will be continually updated as information becomes both available and conveyable in light of changing events.
This panel explores how human rights organizations are engaging in the fight for justice regarding crimes committed within the war. With a particular focus on open-source investigations and strategic case building, the event will examine existing approaches, as well as obstacles, to legally addressing these human rights abuses.
The panelists are: Maksym Rokmaniko (Director of the Center for Spatial Technologies in Kyiv); Nadia Volkova (Director of the Ukrainian Legal Advisory Group); Roksolana Burianenko (Project Manager of the Ukrainian Archive); Hannah Bagdasar (Lead Investigator with Bellingcat’s Global Authentication Project); and Arne Bardelle (Legal Advisor at ECCHR). Anne Schroeter (ECCHR’s Coordinator of the Investigative Commons) moderated the panel.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has led to an unprecedented array of accountability initiatives for the crimes committed in this ongoing war of aggression.
Lithuanian filmmaker Mantas Kvedaravičius was arrested by pro-Russian militias in 2022 during an attempt to evacuate civilians from Mariupol and was found murdered a few days later. ECCHR is now supporting Hanna Bilobrova, the filmmaker's fiancée, in her fight for justice and in the investigation of the murder by suspected pro-Russian militias.
Case page coming soon
A survivor is now calling for investigations in Germany: members of Russian armed forces allegedly first killed her husband and then raped her several times. In order to support the criminal prosecution already underway in Ukraine and to bring an end to the impunity of the perpetrators, the Ukrainian Legal Advisory Group (ULAG) and ECCHR jointly filed a criminal complaint with the German Federal Public Prosecutor in June 2023.
Torture of civilians, arbitrary killings, sexual violence – in the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, evidence of international crimes committed by Russian soldiers continues to mount. A survivor is now calling for investigations in Germany.
Despite a wide range of efforts by the Ukrainian government, civil society and the international community to pursue accountability fo crimes arising from the conflict, there remain significant questions as to how this should be achieved and how international criminal law can be strengthened.
Read our Q&A for a more detailed account of the international legal situation with regard to the Russian-Ukrainian war, along with ECCHR's position on these issues.
The investigations currently conducted by the ICC-OTP, the Joint Investigation Team, the Ukrainian OPG and third states` war crimes units should focus on high-level perpetrators and patterns of crimes. While prosecuting individual cases certainly sends an important signal in the fight against impunity, the structural dimension of the crimes committed must be at the center of attention. Additionally, a survivor-centered approach must be maintained throughout all stages of investigations and needs to include legal and psychosocial support. At the same time, the investigating authorities must ensure that civil society perspectives are included in the investigation prioritization, with special attention to marginalized and vulnerable groups of survivors. Ukrainian civil society can draw on rich experience and insights related to the documentation of war crimes gathered since the beginning of the armed conflict in 2014. It is of utmost importance to listen to their experience, to support and amplify their voices and demands. Local civil society groups are playing an indispensable role in supporting witnesses and survivors, especially in light of the lack of trust in state authorities that can be observed in many places. Special attention must be given to previously under-investigated crimes, with a focus on sexual and gender-based violence. These investigations must be carried out by specially trained personnel so that re-traumatization and secondary victimization are prevented. Investigations must look at alleged crimes by all parties to the conflict and date back to the outbreak of the armed conflict in 2014. In doing all this, coordination among relevant stakeholders is crucial to avoid duplication of efforts.
Ukraine must ratify the Rome Statute without further delay, as long called for by Ukrainian civil society. Despite having accepted the ICC’s jurisdiction through two ad-hoc declarations in 2014 and 2015 already, it still has not become a party to the Rome Statute. After having undertaken a lengthy process of constitutional amendment removing alleged legal obstacles to ratification, there is no reason left not to join the Rome Statute. Nevertheless, Ukrainian officials have repeatedly opposed ratification on the grounds that it would expose Ukrainian armed forces to potential international prosecution. This argument is not only erroneous, as the ad hoc acceptance of ICC jurisdiction already allows for the prosecution of statutory crimes by all parties to the conflict, but demonstrates a problematic and one-sided approach to justice. Similarly, Ukraine’s newly introduced domestic framework for cooperation with the ICC leaves fundamental doubts as to its neutrality, with a provision suggesting that cooperation should only apply to crimes committed against Ukraine rather than to all crimes subject to ICC jurisdiction.
EU states should therefore insist that Ukraine fully commits to impartial justice by ratifying the Rome Statute and make this a precondition for further EU accession negotiations. An important step was taken in 2014 by incorporating the obligation to join the ICC into the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. Subsequently, however, the EU Commission failed to explicitly include this requirement in the list of steps to be taken to obtain candidate status. While pressure from some EU member states prompted Ukraine to ratify the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence with the aim of removing obstacles to EU accession, the same pressure must be exercised with regard to the ratification of the Rome Statute.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has sparked an unprecedented and multi-level response to document and investigate the crimes committed during the course of the conflict.
At the domestic level, the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine (OPG) is investigating Russian crimes of aggression and war crimes, as well as crimes against national security, such as treason and collaborative activities. War crimes proceedings were initiated against Russian military personnel, some of them being tried in absentia, and several Russian soldiers that were present at their trials were already sentenced in Ukraine. There has been no sign of criminal investigations or prosecutions of potential war crimes committed by the Ukrainian military.
At the international level, the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC-OTP) opened an investigation on 2 March 2022 on the basis of two ad-hoc declarations lodged by Ukraine in 2014 and 2015. Two days later, the UN Human Rights Council established an Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, which was mandated to investigate alleged violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. At the regional level, the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism sent missions of experts and has documented war crimes and crimes against humanity, while the EU and the Council of Europe have put in place support and cooperation mechanisms.
In addition, several countries have opened national investigations into the situation, invoking universal or other forms of extraterritorial jurisdiction. Announcements to this effect have been made by states such as Poland, Lithuania, Sweden, Germany, Norway, Switzerland, France, Spain and Canada. To combine accountability efforts, Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine set up a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) in March 2022, which operates under the auspices of Eurojust and was later joined by the ICC-OTP, Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia and Romania. Since the legal framework for prosecuting crimes committed abroad varies greatly from country to country, it is difficult to make general statements about the scope and focus of these investigations. While some countries, such as Germany and Sweden, allow person-specific investigations to be opened without a territorial link, other countries, such as France and Switzerland, require the presence or even the residence of the suspect for doing so. This is why investigations in France, for example, reportedly focus on crimes committed against French nationals, as this does not presuppose such a territorial link.
The principle of universal jurisdiction must be strengthened. Countries with laws that only provide for a limited version of universal jurisdiction, such as France and the Netherlands, need to expand these laws to permit broader jurisdiction in international crimes cases. The ongoing conflict underlines the need for investigations unconstrained by presence requirements of suspects and similar limitations. In the case of the Netherlands, for instance, Dutch war crimes units are not permitted by law to investigate until a suspect is present in the Netherlands, such that supporting the ICC with national investigators and forensic experts is the only option available to engage in investigations that do not meet these narrow requirements.
The crime of aggression is by definition a leadership crime. Putin however, as long as he is sitting president, enjoys immunity from prosecution for international crimes before national courts. Similarly, the ICC, which by virtue of its international character would be best placed to prosecute the crime, cannot take actions with regards to the Russian war of aggression. It lacks jurisdiction over the crime of aggression committed by nationals of states that are not party to the Rome Statute, such as Russia. A Security Council referral could theoretically bridge that gap, but Russia’s veto is certain. The crime of aggression in this regard is different from war crimes and crimes against humanity, which can be prosecuted when committed on the territory of a state that has either ratified the Rome Statute or accepted ICC jurisdiction through an ad-hoc declaration, as Ukraine did. This exception goes back to the 2010 Kampala conference, where the jurisdictional regime for the crime of aggression was specifically negotiated. Powerful states like the US prominently pushed for limiting the court’s jurisdiction over the crime of aggression to shield their own nationals from prosecution. In light of these obstacles, some stakeholders are calling for the establishment of a special tribunal for the crime of aggression.
A special tribunal for the crime of aggression would perpetuate problematic double standards and selective justice. Representatives of the same states that once lobbied to limit the jurisdictional power of the ICC regarding this crime are now supporting the idea of such a tribunal. This sends a fatal message that undermines equal justice, implying that aggressive warfare by certain state actors is worthy of prosecution while the representatives of other states continue to enjoy impunity. The only way to close this impunity gap in an equitable and sustainable manner is to amend the Rome Statute, giving the ICC jurisdiction over all acts of aggression committed against its member states or those accepting its jurisdiction.
Another model for avoiding selectivity would be a hybrid tribunal on all international crimes, as demanded by many members of Ukrainian civil society. Such a mechanism would be composed of both national and international professionals and embedded within the Ukrainian legal system. Not only would it be beneficial for furthering international criminal justice but also for strengthening the Ukrainian justice system, enhancing domestic capacities while ensuring that due process is followed. It would thus provide an adequate answer to the doubts expressed by Ukrainian civil society regarding domestic capacities to handle cases of mass atrocities.
Victims who have fled to the European Union are entitled to a number of rights under the EU Victims’ Rights Directive, even if the crimes were committed outside the EU. As part of the on-going investigations in many European countries under the principle of universal jurisdiction, victims should be fully informed about their rights under the directive and how they can best exercise them. This includes low-level access to legal and psycho-social support. Legal support should include advice on war crimes investigations, witness protection as well as on migration status and related questions. Such forms of support would mitigate the risk of doubling survivor interviews and ensures that survivors in stable conditions provide better quality testimonies. However, there are no adequate support mechanisms in place across Europe for victims of international crimes from Ukraine and other applicable situations worldwide.
The overwhelming response by many Western countries to the call for the swift application of international criminal justice to address the human rights situation in Ukraine is clearly a welcome development.
However, it is nonetheless essential that any application of international justice avoids the pitfalls of double standards, i.e. of being applied in an uneven and disproportionate manner across the spectrum of severe conflicts in recent history (especially those involving Western states). The danger: double standards may only serve to weaken institutions of international law in the long run.
The Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory is a blatant violation of international law and is in no way justifiable. As the German Society for International Law rightly states, Russia’s arguments constitute an abuse of the language of international law and represent legally untenable positions. Read on for the whole statement.
Die Invasion Russlands in das ukrainische Staatsgebiet ist völkerrechtswidrig und scharf zu kritisieren (siehe unsere Stellungnahme vom 28. Februar). Seit Kriegsbeginn eskaliert der Konflikt: So mehren sich die Hinweise auf mutmaßliche Kriegsverbrechen gegen die ukrainische Zivilbevölkerung. Der Westen reagierte bisher mit Sanktionen gegen Russland und Waffenlieferungen an die Ukraine. Lesen Sie hier unsere komplette Stellungnahme.
Wolfgang Kaleck, DER SPIEGEL | Jul 9, 2022
Seit Russlands Angriff auf die Ukraine erfährt das Völkerstrafrecht besondere Aufmerksamkeit. Das ist eine gute Nachricht für die Menschenrechte. Die schlechte: Der Westen selbst hat das Recht zuletzt unglaubwürdig gemacht.
Wolfgang Kaleck spricht im Interview darüber, warum es keine "Gleichheit im Unrecht" geben darf, westliche Doppelstandards aber trotzdem das Völkerstrafrecht untergraben.
A guest commentary by Andreas Schüller (only in German), published in Forschungsjournal Soziale Bewegung https://35.JG. Heft 2.2022
The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was followed by a multi-layered response, primarily from Western states. Activation of international criminal justice was one of the key issues in response to Russian violations of international law. Implementation now presents both opportunities and risks. International criminal justice can emerge stronger from the international law crisis through stronger practice and improved coordination of investigations. But it can also be weakened in the long term if application practices remain one-sided with respect to Ukraine and beyond, and double standards are more entrenched than ever by powerful states.
In der Online-Veranstaltung am 15.09.2022 sprachen wir mit den beiden Expert*innen Nadia Volkova und Andreas Schüller über die Möglichkeiten der Strafverfolg...
One year ago, Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, committing an act of aggression in violation of the UN Charter. Many more incidents of international crimes followed, adding to an already large number of unaddressed crimes going back to 2014. While investigations are underway, the failures to pursue accountability for international crimes committed by Russia in the past still need to be addressed in this context.