This war had implications for us all

By Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws KC

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was and is a criminal act under international law. Despite Russia’s purported claims that Ukrainian territory is a historic and integral part of Russia, Ukraine remains a sovereign nation, and Russia’s invasion constitutes a Crime of Aggression.

Since the beginning of the invasion, the Russian state has committed numerous war crimes and atrocities. The Russian military has carried out a sustained campaign of targeting civilians and other non-military targets, ranging from schools and hospitals to crucial infrastructure. Notable among these was the attack on the Kakhovka Dam, which was destroyed on June 6th, 2023, unleashing a flood which led to the wholesale devastation of the affected area. Additionally, the shelling of the Zaporizhian nuclear power plant and the consequential disruption of its operation could have, if not unchecked, resulted in a nuclear disaster. Russia has also engaged in the repeated and continuous use of chemical weapons against Ukraine in clear violation of the Geneva Convention.

These war crimes and atrocities, however, are not restricted solely to the citizens of Ukraine. In this regard, the Putin government has also perpetrated a multitude of crimes against its own citizens. The affected individuals of this state repression have ranged from journalists to lawyers and political opponents. The death of Alexei Navalny is proof of Putin’s tyranny. Navalny died because Putin knew he posed a threat by standing for liberty and freedom. This has also included forced conscription, as well as incarceration for Russian citizens with punitive sentences for criticizing the invasion of Ukraine. In April 2023, opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza was sentenced to twenty-five years in jail in Russia for treason, spreading “false” information about the Russian army and being affiliated with an “undesirable organisation”. The tough sentence is a sign that Russian authorities are determined to silence critics neutralise anyone they believe represents a threat to the political system. Notably, only a few journalists from Russian state media were granted access to the courtroom, restricting the right to a fair and public hearing.

Before and since the initial invasion, Russia has repeatedly attempted to delegitimise Ukraine’s territorial, national, and cultural integrity. The denial of Ukrainian identity has been most clearly displayed by the Russian military’s targeting of Ukrainian cultural heritage sites. These acts have involved the destruction of museums, art galleries and historic places of worship and have resulted in the looting of ancient, medieval, and early modern artifacts from Ukraine. UNESCO has specifically cited the fact that such cultural destruction on the part of Russia is a war crime and tantamount to cultural genocide as defined by international law. Putin’s assertion, in interview with American political commentator, Tucker Carlson, that Ukraine is an artificial Soviet construct devised under Stalin reinforces the rhetoric being promoted throughout Russia. Denying the Ukrainian people their land, and destroying cultural heritage, Russia is systematically erasing the unique cultural identity and sovereignty of Ukraine.

It is essential for European countries to stand together in the face of continuous Russian aggression in Ukraine. To this end, Ukraine’s continued military, economic, social, and humanitarian support is essential and must not be diminished in any capacity. The principle of universality, entrenched in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the cornerstone of international human rights law. All people are equally entitled to human rights. Ukraine must not be reduced to being Europe’s “buffer state” to ward off Russian aggression, as Viktor Orbán, the President of Hungary, has suggested.

The upcoming United States election in November will have a significant impact on the war in Ukraine. President Joe Biden has reaffirmed his commitment to supporting Ukraine in this conflict if re-elected. Comparatively, Donald Trump, in seeking a second term, has vowed that he will attempt to end the war and bring peace. However, on February 11, 2024, Trump asserted that he would encourage Russia to attack NATO members whom he considers have not met their financial obligations. The White House described these comments by Trump as “appalling” and “unhinged” and were soundly rebuked by Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary General of NATO. Though it remains unclear who will be elected in November, it is unquestionable that the outcome of the US election will significantly impact the direction of the war in Ukraine.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused one of the most significant and severe humanitarian crises in recent years. It has displaced millions of refugees from Ukraine and left much of the population without access to food, medical supplies, or shelter. One of the most vulnerable groups affected by the war is the children of Ukraine. Russia has abducted children from orphanages, homes, and schools, creating familial and social devastation. In 2023, Baroness Kennedy was appointed by the Office of the President of Ukraine as Co-Chair of Bring Kids Back UA International Taskforce- a high-level group of experts focused on returning forcefully deported children to Ukraine. Core to this mission is the safe repatriation of the abducted Ukrainian children to their homes.

Only humanity can defeat inhumanity, and in times such as these, law and justice must be the guiding principles for the international community. Foregoing due process and failing to abide by international conventions and humanitarian law can only serve to deepen the crisis and further prevent justice. Seeing that justice is done and the law is followed is the duty the entire international community. Justice for Ukraine will only be obtained when the international legal community can adequately hold the perpetrators of Russia’s war crimes to account.

This war had implications for us all. The impact on the global economy has been huge. Standards of living across the world have fallen. The war and the crimes involved are a clear display of contempt for the ‘rules based order’ created after World War 2. It undermines the rule of law everywhere and gives comfort to authoritarians who emulate Russia’s conduct in trampling over human rights. It is the politics of disruption and the end game is to destroy liberal democracies, the European Bloc and the United States. We ignore these wider implications at our peril.

Baroness Helena Kennedy of the Shaws KC is a Scottish barrister, a King’s Counsel, member of the House of Lords, Director of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI), Co-Chair of Bring Kids Back UA and member of the M100 Advisory Board.

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