Urmas Reinsalu: Putin needs to be tried over genocide unfolding in Ukraine

Urmas Reinsalu.
Urmas Reinsalu. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Isamaa MP Urmas Reinsalu writes about the background and reasoning behind the Riigikogu's statement on Russia's genocide against the Ukrainian people.

During this difficult time, when the Ukrainian people are still fighting against the Russian Federation's aggression, new crimes for which legal judgment must be given are still being committed. Acts committed by the armed forces of the Russian Federation are no longer crimes of aggression but serve the goal of systematic and premeditated destruction of the Ukrainian people and its distinctive features and removing Ukrainians' right to self-determination.

Based on this, it is immediately necessary to classify as genocide against the Ukrainian people acts committed by the armed forces of the Russian Federation in the recent phase of the war it launched against Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

The United Nations Genocide Convention and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court define genocide as acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such. These acts are: killing members of the group, causing them serious bodily or mental harm, imposing living conditions intended to destroy the group, preventing births and forcibly transferring children out of the group.

Therefore, to constitute genocide, relevant acts need to have the following characteristics:

1. They are aimed against a certain protected group of people that can be distinguished based on national, ethnic, racial or religious markers.

2. Their goal is the partial or complete destruction of a protected group

3. They need to manifest in at least one form described in the convention and the statute.

It is important to emphasize several legal aspects based on international law and criminal court practice.

Firstly, based on the Yugoslavian tribunal example, the existence of a general and formal plan for genocide is not necessary for acts to be classified as genocide. Secondly, genocide does not have to be the main goal of the perpetrators, based on the Rwanda case. Thirdly, there is no minimal number of victims, according to the Yugoslavian tribunal.

The original texts of the convention and statute use the term "national group" that cannot be associated with a single nation (such as Ukraine) as is often the attempt of representatives of the "Russkiy Mir." (Russian World) as such an interpretation would narrow the scope of the convention and leave without protection entire communities that can be made up of people from different nationalities.

In court practice, a broader treatment of the term "national group" has been adopted that corresponds to the goals of the convention and statute on the one hand and the semantic meaning of the words "nation" and "national" on the other.

Based on the judgment of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda a national group is a group of people perceived as legally bound based on shared citizenship and mutual rights and obligations.

Intent to destroy the Ukrainian people/nation

Circumstances that preceded and accompany the Russian Federation's war on Ukraine clearly point to the Russian leadership's intent to destroy the Ukrainian people. Even before Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, [Russian President] Vladimir Putin denied the existence of Ukraine as a separate country, declaring Ukraine an inseparable part of Russia.

Putin's claim that the Russians and Ukrainians are not separate peoples and are in fact one amounts to one thing only – denying the very existence of the Ukrainian people.

The declared goal of the aggression is to "denazify" Ukraine. The term has been created expressly for the purpose of tying the aggression to an attempt to destroy "nazis" who allegedly occupy the whole of Ukraine. Russians refer as "nazis" to those Ukrainians who deny that there is only a single nation and are fighting for the Ukrainian people's right at self-determination.

The Russian state international news portal RIA Novosti published an online article titled "What must Russia do about Ukraine" according to which the "denazification" of Ukrainians consists of reeducation through ideological repression and strict censorship, not just in the field of politics but also culture and education. The article suggested that "denazification" would inevitably result in "deukrainianization."

The armed forces of the Russian Federation are acting against the civilian population of Ukraine with the aim of destroying either partially or completely the Ukrainian people as a separate national group, causing serious bodily or mental harm, knowingly imposing living conditions that cause the population's complete or partial destruction and forcibly relocating Ukrainian children to Russia or temporarily occupied parts of Ukraine.

The armed forces of the Russian Federation have committed numerous killings, robberies, acts of torture and rape and mutilation of the bodies of people tortured to death in the temporarily occupied territories of Bucha, Borodianka, Mariupol, Hostomel, Irpin and many others. Families with children trying to escape settlements in the Donetsk, Kyiv, Luhansk, Sumy, Kharkiv, Kherson and Chernihiv oblasts have been shot.

Terrible, inhumane and cynical facts continue coming to light as occupied territories are liberated. The occupants are knowingly aiming military action against the civilian population and objects, as well as buildings under special protection (hospitals, schools, kindergartens). For example, in Mariupol, where bombs were dropped on a maternity hospital and theater in which people took refuge and where the word "children" had been outlined in huge letters next to the building.

Entire cities have been practically destroyed (Volnovakha, Izium, Mariupol, Okhtyrka, Chernihiv and others). In Gostomel, soldiers systematically burned swastikas into the flesh of raped women, with a Russian soldier who was asked if he feels for dead Ukrainian children saying he does not because they were Ukrainian in a verified phone call recording.

Separate attention needs to be paid to numerous facts that prove that living conditions have been altered with the aim of the physical destruction of the Ukrainian population. Blockades of settlements, destruction of civilian infrastructure therein (power, water and heating), restricting access to humanitarian aid and evacuation of civilians.

Residents are deprived of access to essentials (such as water, food, heating in winter, medicines and medical assistance) with the aim of creating extreme suffering and ultimately physically destroying the civilian population of several Ukrainian settlements.

Such actions constitute war crimes (using hunger as a means of war) and crimes against humanity (destruction of civilian populations). The blockade of major cities Mariupol and Chernihiv proves Russia's intent to destroy at least a part of the Ukrainian people.

There have been numerous reports of thousands of Ukrainian civilians, including children being forcibly relocated to the territory of the Russian Federation or temporarily occupied Ukraine.

For example, the involuntary expulsion and relocation of Mariupol residents also works to prove intent to destroy the Ukrainian people, end its existence in certain territories. Forcible relocation of Ukrainian children to Russia, moving them to be raised in an alien environment proves intent to destroy their self-determination as Ukrainian.

Several of Russia's actions are furthermore aimed at the gradual destruction of the Ukrainian people through undermining economic potential and security. This is reflected in attempts to destroy physical infrastructure (damaging grain silos, hindering spring sowing, blocking shipping routes, destroying electricity and gas transmission infrastructure etc.).

All such activities serve the goal of impoverishing the Ukrainian people and creating a shortage of food and other resources necessary for survival. Temporarily occupied territories are immediately switched to Russian-language and ideological education that once more proves intent to destroy Ukrainian identity and nationality.

Ukrainian historical literature and fiction not in line with the postulates of Kremlin propaganda are removed from libraries in temporarily occupied territories in Luhansk, Donetsk, Chernihiv and Sumy. Russia's so-called military police subunits are involved in relevant operations.

It needs to be noted that genocide consisting of the physical destruction of a protected group often comes with attacks on and destruction of objects of cultural, historical and religious heritage.

The demolition of Ukrainian museums, historical monuments and churches, destruction of Ukrainian books and prohibiting the use of the Ukrainian language are obvious attempts to remove cultural, historical and linguistic traits characteristic of and uniting the Ukrainian people.

This kind of activity proves that there is intent for the physical destruction of the Ukrainian people/nation. Therefore, these facts suggest that the actions of the Russian Federation during its armed aggression are aimed at destroying the people of Ukraine and constitute genocide.

The victims deserve justice

The Ukrainian prosecution has launched over 5,800 criminal proceedings to investigate war crimes. The list of these crimes has been shared with the undersigned (of the Riigikogu statement on genocide being committed in Ukraine – ed.).

The statement follows studying the list forwarded by the government of Ukraine, an explanatory memorandum by the Verkhovna Rada, statements by representatives of witnesses and theoretical analyses by three experts – sworn lawyer Norman Aas, military law expert Evhen Tsibulenko and legal expert Maria Hrabarchuk.

What is the importance of the Riigikogu decisions? Firstly, that the victims deserve justice. Secondly, because signatories to the genocide convention agree that war- or peacetime genocide is a crime against international law that they are obligated to prevent and punish.

A clear judgment places a greater obligation on states to intervene to obstruct and put an end to genocide. According to Kofi Annan and based on international law, the countries of the world, following genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica, in 2005 assumed the obligation to intervene and protect populations from genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. This is based on the corresponding joint address by world leaders and the UN General Assembly's decision from 2005.

We have NATO Article Five but we also have humanity's article five. This was understood by French President Emmanuel Macron when he said, "Countries that believe it constitutes genocide are obligated by international law to get involved."

The Riigikogu has drawn both moral and legal consequences based on which it finds that the Russian Federation's war of aggression constitutes genocide. It is our duty to humanity, to the people of Ukraine.

In order to put pressure on Russia, we need to seek tougher sanctions against Russia and more aid for Ukraine – especially offensive weapons and munitions – from the countries of the world. To ensure that criminals will not escape their punishments, the Riigikogu has called for the creation of a special international tribunal to try Putin and his accomplices.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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