Russo-Ukrainian War: Violations of International Law and War Crimes
Nicholas and Stephen Blanchette
The ongoing invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation has shocked the world and left many to wonder about the broader consequences that could stem from this conflict. However, further to this violation of Ukrainian sovereign territory, in direct contravention of the Charter of the United Nations, there is mounting evidence that these invaders are committing atrocities against the civilian population. Although there are many Russians who have been arrested and detained for merely voicing their opposition to their country’s invasion of Ukraine, the Russian armed forces, under the direction of Vladimir Putin, have violated the fourth Geneva Convention by directly targeting civilians and, more deplorably, hospitals, as they attempt to illegally overthrow the Ukrainian government.
In 2014, Russian separatists began a rebellion against the Ukrainian government in the eastern regions of the country. These regions are largely Russian speaking and populated by ethnic Russians due to the aftermath of the Holodomor genocide and the necessity to repopulate the area with capable farmers coming from other parts of the USSR. Regardless of the legitimacy of the rebel movement in Ukraine, Russia had been funneling resources and troops into these regions for the purposes of expanding their military sphere of influence. Before NATO could properly react, Russia had conducted elections in those regions as a way to legitimize their separation from the rest of Ukraine – although it is relevant to note that the impartiality of these elections remains hotly contested. In the weeks preceding the invasion, the Russian government officially recognized the independence of these contested regions and began military training exercises in Belarus. Immediately prior to this most recent incursion, Vladimir Putin stated his intention was only to secure peace in these so-called independent regions, but unfortunately the events of the passed days have shown this to be false, as now Russian forces advance ever closer to the Ukrainian capital with the goal of forcing the submission of the entire country.
In the context of international law, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine violates both the United Nations Charter (the “Charter”) and the Geneva convention. Chapter 1, article 2, section 4, of the Charter explicitly states that no member of the UN may threaten or use force against the sovereign territory or political independence of another nation-state. Moreover, Chapter 7, article 51 of the Charter, justifies the legal use of force for the purposes of self-defense from an armed attack. Put plainly, Russia’s unprovoked incursion into Ukraine sovereign territory is specifically outlawed, while Ukraine’s ongoing struggle to retain its independence is overtly allowed. Ironically, in Vladimir Putin’s de facto declaration of war against Ukraine in the early morning hours of the 24th of February, he invoked Article 51, and claimed this invasion was necessary to guarantee the territorial integrity of “the independent regions of Donetsk and Luhansk”. There are two reasons that this invocation is inappropriate: first, offensive Russian military action, over and above peacekeeping, has not been limited to the Donbass region (where Donetsk and Luhansk are located) – it has been wide ranging across the entirety of Ukraine; and second, Article 51 of the Charter only applies to United Nations member states, and therefore both Donetsk and Luhansk are excluded from its application.
In addition to the prohibition against an unprovoked attack of a member nation, the fourth Geneva Convention is also unfortunately relevant to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In 1949 the fourth and final Geneva Convention was created regarding the safety and security of civilians during war. Although this convention deals with the security of non-combatants generally, there are discrete provisions that refer to how hospitals and other such lifesaving services should be preserved. As of the time this is being written, merely four days into the conflict, there have been accounts of hundreds of civilian casualties with many more not accounted for.
Russian aggression against the back drop of international law makes it difficult to be sympathetic to the reasons for war offered by Russian leadership. Russia first violated Ukraine’s sovereignty by illegally annexing Crimea in 2014 and then further by deploying troops to the Donbass in 2016 (although there is evidence to support their deployment took place earlier). Furthermore, Russia’s current military doctrine necessitates the deployment of MLRS (Multiple Launch Rocket System(s)) artillery against civilian infrastructure – a direct contravention of the Geneva Convention, which has led to the loss of innocent lives, even at this very moment. In addition to general attacks on civilian targets, Russia has attacked hospitals, such as the Melitopol Hospital, as it attempts to accomplish its objective of capturing all Ukrainian cities east of the Dnieper River (including Kyiv), several cities west of the river such as Odessa and Kherson and overthrowing the duly elected government. By launching an illegal invasion of Ukraine which expressly targets civilian infrastructure, Vladimir Putin has gone beyond merely starting a war, but has also broken international law, and violated the human rights of countless Ukrainians. It should also be noted that it is not just the rights of non-Russian citizens that have been trampled on by the Putin administration. In fact, in Moscow and St. Petersburg, thousands of Russian citizens have been illegally detained for peacefully protesting the invasion of their sibling country, Ukraine. In the face of denying the human rights of people both abroad and domestically, it is undeniable that Russia has lost the moral high ground in this conflict, regardless of what is reported by its state-controlled media.
The Russo-Ukrainian war will have devastating consequences that are not as directly foreseeable as the consequences stemming from deadly arms. For instance, with the imposition of economic sanctions on Russia, in addition to the removal of Russian banks from the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) system, it is likely that the Russian people will suffer greatly as a result of the malicious conduct of their leadership. Moreover, the European Union has estimated that millions of Ukrainians will be displaced as refugees, which has all the makings of another humanitarian crisis caused by Russian intervention in a foreign country.
In conclusion, although it does not take an expert understanding of international law to see the falsity behind Putin’s reason for invading Ukraine, it is important to recognize both how he has violated the Charter of the United Nations and the Geneva Convention by directly targeting civilian centers during his illegal invasion. Ukraine is a small country, not much larger than Canada in respect to population, and without help, it is only a matter of time before Ukraine as it currently stands is destroyed by overwhelming Russian aggression. As citizens of a country that prides itself on fighting for justice and human rights, Canada would be wise to come together as a community and discuss the broader implications of unchecked humanitarian abuses. Although it is uncertain what exactly will come of this conflict, Canadians should reject the actions of the Russian government, and ask ourselves: “after Ukraine, who is next?” If we do not, the tragedy happening against the Ukrainian people could signal far worse atrocities yet to come.
This article was written during the first week of the invasion. About the authors: Nicholas Blanchette, BA Political Science (Hons), J.D. Candidate, Vice President of TRU Human Rights Law Club. Stephen Blanchette, BA History and Global Studies (Hons), President of Spasa Moskalyk Parish Council.