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Two years on: Breaking the cycle of impunity for Russian war crimes

Article by Oleksandra Matviichuk

February 23, 2024

Two years on: Breaking the cycle of impunity for Russian war crimes

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine is a result of the total impunity that Russia enjoyed for decades. The Russian military has committed terrible crimes in Chechnya, Moldova, Georgia, Syria, Mali, and Libya but was never punished. They believe they can do whatever they want.


Now, Russian troops are destroying residential buildings, churches, museums, schools, and hospitals in Ukraine. They are shooting at evacuation corridors. They are torturing people in filtration camps. They are forcibly taking Ukrainian children to Russia. They are abducting, robbing, raping and killing in the occupied territories.


This is a conscious policy. Russia uses war crimes as a method of warfare. Russia attempts to break people’s resistance and occupy the country by means of inflicting immense pain on civilians. At the Centre for Civil Liberties, we document this pain. Over the past two years alone, with the joint efforts of the ‘Tribunal for Putin’ initiative, we have documented 62,000 episodes of war crimes.


However, we face an accountability gap. The Ukrainian legal system is overloaded with an extreme level of war crime cases. Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court restricts its investigations to just a few selected cases and has no jurisdiction over the crime of aggression to hold Russia to account for its actions against Ukraine.


If we want to prevent wars, we have to punish the states, and their leaders, responsible for starting them. In the whole history of humankind, we have only one such precedent.


That’s why we still look at the world through the lens of the Nuremberg Trials, where Nazi war criminals were tried only after the Nazi regime had collapsed. But we are living in a new century. Justice should not depend on how and when the war ends. We must establish a special tribunal now and hold Putin, as well as Belarussian President Lukashenko and others, guilty of the crime of aggression, accountable.


Besides the crime of aggression, there are other international crimes – war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. These crimes should not have to remain as simply information stored in our archives, in the media, and in reports of international organisations.


New technologies allow us to document war crimes in a way that we could not even dream of 15 years ago. The experience of the open source media outlet Bellingcat and other investigators convincingly proves that we can rebuild a picture of what took place without even being on the spot.


The challenge facing Ukraine is the unprecedented amount of international crimes. The Office of General Prosecutor has registered more than 125,000 criminal proceedings. International donors can finance thousands of training and hundreds of advisors; but in a situation where Ukrainian investigators need to investigate more than a thousand criminal cases simultaneously, we will not get results.


Instead, we must ingrain an international element into the level of national investigation and national justice. Ukraine requires the support of foreign professionals, judges, prosecutors and detectives, in order to properly investigate and ensure court proceedings for the tens of thousands of crimes, in compliance with international standards of justice.


We must break this circle of impunity. Not only for Ukrainians. But also for the people who could become the next target of Russian aggression. And prevent it this time.


Oleksandra Matviichuk is the Head of the human rights organisation Center for Civil Liberties, which won the Nobel Peace Prize 2022.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not reflect the views of The Foreign Policy Centre.

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