“A great injustice is being done, and no matter how difficult it is, we cannot leave it unanswered.” How the Foundation seeks legal accountability for Russia’s crimes in Ukraine

Сашко Кульчицький

We, at the International Renaissance Foundation, are convinced that all perpetrators of Russia’s war crimes against Ukraine must be brought to justice. In 2022, the Foundation identified this topic as one of its key priorities. This topic first appeared on the agenda back in 2014.

“I was the first person to sign the submission to the International Criminal Court regarding the crimes on Maidan,” says Roman Romanov, Director of the Human Rights and Justice Program at the International Renaissance Foundation. “When the occupation of Crimea and the war in Donbas began, dozens of materials were prepared with our support. But at that time, there was no great interest in the world in the topic of international crimes in Ukraine at all. We have been systematically working on these issues since 2014, and in 2022 we just had to expand the format. But this was not something new for us, as it was for many other organizations.”

In 2023, we continue to work actively on issues of legal accountability for war crimes. We support human rights organizations that document the consequences of war crimes and human rights violations, help to find common denominators and develop common principles for all civil society organizations in these areas, and promote important messages on international platforms. We focus our efforts on protecting the victims, finding ways to reduce the suffering of war victims and achieve justice.

Despite the fact that war itself may be a violation of all conceivable rules, there are so-called laws and customs of war at the legal level. And our partners have tens of thousands of evidences of their violation during Russia’s aggressive war against Ukraine.

“War always puts emotions in the forefront. The role of lawyers is to ensure that emotional factors do not prevail. Fighting in the field of emotions does not always result in the consequences that people expect,” says Roman Romanov. “It is very important, even in a situation where it seems that all the rules are being violated, to look for approaches that can be turned into opportunities, even if they are very limited, as provided for by international humanitarian law and international criminal law.

Read about how the Foundation works on accountability for international crimes, what results have already been achieved and what lies ahead in this article.


Working with partner organizations

As a donor organization, the Foundation annually provides dozens of grants related to the topic of Russia’s legal responsibility for war crimes. At the same time, we do not formulate specific requests to organizations, but only announce areas within which human rights defenders can propose their project ideas. “I’m against donors managing the processes for civil society organizations. We work with professional communities. This is a very specific topic that requires experience and knowledge,” says Roman Romanov.

The Media Initiative for Human Rights (MIPHR) is engaged in documenting torture committed by the Russians against both prisoners of war and civilians. Currently, the MHRI is actively implementing various initiatives aimed at supporting the families of prisoners of war and at studying the situation of captured and missing servicemen. Important data collected in the process of communication with families are also used in the creation of journalistic investigations and cases on the ill-treatment of prisoners of war.

Their joint activities with the Foundation include three components: information and analytical, communication, and legal. The information and analytical part includes the preparation of materials on the detention, detention and release of prisoners of war and former military personnel, journalistic investigations, surveys to document war crimes, and research on the conditions of detention. The communication part includes maintaining contacts with the families of prisoners of war, coordinating actions and organizing meetings with various structures. The legal component involves supporting the cases of prisoners of war in international institutions, preparing submissions to the UN Committee against Torture and providing legal advice to the families of prisoners of war.

NGO “Ecology. Law. Human” NGO deals with crimes against the environment. The organization’s experts are convinced that what the Russians are doing to the Ukrainian environment can be called ecocide – deliberate mass destruction of natural resources to cause an environmental disaster. The organization’s experts research Russian crimes against the environment, analyze them and explain their systematic nature. Their ambitious goal is to make sure that the concept of “ecocide” eventually appears in the Rome Statute, and in the future it would deter states from committing similar crimes.

The Ukrainian Legal Advisory Group (ULAG) aims to help victims and survivors of the most serious crimes in Ukraine and around the world to restore their rights and bring perpetrators to justice. ULAG collects evidence of Russia’s crimes, including sexual violence, and studies the attitudes of Ukrainians towards issues related to justice and accountability for wartime crimes. Experts share their findings and facts of international crimes on international platforms, and within Ukraine, their research forms the basis of numerous projects to strengthen the capacity of Ukraine’s legal system to protect and restore the rights of victims.

Thuth Hounds analysts document Russian war crimes using a variety of OSINT technologies. They submit the collected materials to the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine and the International Criminal Court. In addition, the organization actively shares its experience with other experts involved in documenting, as well as training Ukrainian pre-trial investigation bodies to work with these tools. For example, in cooperation with the Foundation, Thuth Hounds analyzes various OSINT tools for their capabilities and effectiveness in documenting war crimes, and develops a specialized map and compendium (short collection) of such tools for prosecutors, investigators and non-governmental experts.

In addition to the international level, the Foundation also assists national investigations, as most war crimes cases will be tried in Ukrainian courts. With the Foundation’s support, Just Group is working with the War Crimes Department of the Prosecutor General’s Office to develop national capacity to deal with war crimes. They are helping to develop standards for investigating such crimes, and we are also supporting training for prosecutors and investigators involved in the investigations.


The biggest advocacy victory

The Regional Center for Human Rights (RCHR) is one of the Foundation’s long-standing and systemic partners. Now it is also one of the organizations that actively communicates with the International Criminal Court in The Hague (ICC). In fact, the RCHR was the first to systematically document and disseminate information about international crimes against children. Relevant materials were also sent to the International Criminal Court. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court provides that interested parties, including civil society organizations, may submit information. Due to this, the RCHR, independently or jointly with international organizations, regularly submits information to the ICC. Experts prepare an in-depth legal analysis of the facts of violations with conclusions and proposals.

It is difficult to say whether the contribution of the RCHR was decisive, but it was definitely significant in that it was the information about the deportation of Ukrainian children that set the wheels in motion to bring the perpetrators to justice. The ICC’s arrest warrant for the Russian president and the Russian Ombudsperson for Children’s Rights dispelled doubts that the responsibility of the country’s top leadership for international crimes is possible and real.

Although Putin has not yet been brought to trial, the geography of his safe movement has simultaneously narrowed to 123 countries. “If I were asked what was the biggest advocacy success over the past year, I would say that it was Putin’s absence from the BRICS summit in South Africa. I think he would have given a lot to be among the leaders of the countries he wants to have in his inner circle, and he was unable to do so precisely because of the ICC arrest warrant,” Roman Romanov says.

For its part, the Foundation helps the RCHR to advocate at the international level for Russia’s legal responsibility for the forced removal of children, as well as to look for ways to work on the mechanism of returning these children to Ukraine. For example, during the UN General Assembly in New York, one of the events was devoted to this very topic. One of the key speakers at the event was the RCHR expert Kateryna Rashevska, and the organizers were the Open Society Foundation and the Renaissance Foundation.


The Foundation’s role in forming a unified voice

The Foundation not only supports other organizations, but also actively works in this area. We promote the formation of common positions of a wide range of partners both within Ukraine and abroad.

Currently, there are two large human rights coalitions in Ukraine (Ukraine. Five in the Morning and Tribunal for Putin), as well as many smaller organizations that aim to achieve justice for victims of international crimes and bring the perpetrators to justice. We strive to establish a dialog between them and help overcome the segmentation of civil society. The world wants to hear the coordinated voices of Ukrainian human rights defenders on key issues. And the Foundation helps to synchronize these voices.

This is how the “Joint Guidelines on Accountability for International Crimes Committed in Ukraine” appeared, which were agreed upon by a wide range of non-governmental organizations dealing with legal accountability for international crimes. For the Foundation, it is important that the ideas and proposals that Ukrainian civil society comes up with are coherent, professional and realistic. The Guidelines are now available in Ukrainian, English, French, Spanish and Arabic, so that experts from different countries can understand the Ukrainian perspective on this topic.

As a follow-up to the Joint Guidelines, a series of more detailed position papers are being developed, including on crimes against children, compensation, human rights in the liberated territories, etc. These are consolidated conclusions on the most important issues of concern to Ukrainian human rights defenders. The documents contain a description of the situation, goals and ways to achieve them, issues on which compromises are possible and vice versa – where they are inappropriate, and instead maximum support is needed to promote these ideas.

“We provide moderation of the process and give space for all opinions to be presented, and we have developed procedures that allow this to be done transparently,” explains the director of the Human Rights and Justice Program. “Together with experts from civil society organizations, we formulate topics, identify coordinators, and hold discussions. Later, we summarize all this in the form of a position paper, collect feedback, and take into account all the amendments and additions. Sometimes we need to go for a second or third round. We work until we reach a decision that such a document is truly consolidating.”

There is also a closed knowledge base where all the discussions, meeting summaries, and various thematic materials are uploaded. Only those organizations that have endorsed the Joint Guidelines have access to the knowledge base.


International partnerships for Ukraine

When the need arises, the Foundation makes efforts to strengthen international advocacy for certain requests and possible solutions. The Open Society Foundation, our parent organization, is actively involved in this work. We jointly develop communication campaigns, assist in organizing and conducting events at international platforms of the UN, OSCE, Council of Europe, etc. The Open Society Foundation, together with the Renaissance Foundation, also helps to establish partnerships between Ukrainian and international human rights organizations that have experience in documenting war crimes and protecting victims. Sometimes cooperation develops into joint projects.

For example, the joint efforts of the Ukrainian Health Care Center and the international organization Physicians for Human Rights have resulted in the creation of a map of attacks on Ukrainian hospitals and a specialized English-language website with information collected by Ukrainian experts.

Similarly, the World Organization Against Torture works with the Ukrainian ZMINA and the Media Initiative for Human Rights, the European Center for Constitutional Law and Human Rights – with the Ukrainian Legal Advisory Group, Truth Hounds and the International Partnership for Human Rights, etc.

In its work, the Foundation seeks to build confidence in different parts of the world that it is impossible to tolerate the most serious crimes on the scale they have been and are being committed in the course of Russian aggression against Ukraine. “Why did we create, for example, an Arabic version of the website? So that we could have a meaningful conversation with organizations representing victims of other conflicts about the principles of international justice and the fact that we do not demand a conditional “warm bath” for ourselves or seek to create exceptional standards of justice. On the contrary, we want to develop international justice and create practices that will have a greater impact on the intentions to (not) commit the most serious crimes in the future,” Roman Romanov explains.

According to him, we are talking about global approaches to justice. “This is not exactly lobbying and advocacy for Ukraine’s interests, because the desire to ensure justice for victims of wars can and should be unifying. International law must develop and fill in the gaps, but we must also act confidently within the available legal mechanisms,” says Roman and emphasizes, “There is great injustice being done. We do not want to and cannot afford to just watch it happen.”


What’s next?

Given the scale of the crimes and the ongoing nature of the war, the Foundation understands that establishing justice for all the crimes committed will take decades, not even years. This does not mean that there cannot be interim and very quick solutions. However, society must realize by whom, what steps are being taken to achieve this, and they should be defined and explained,” Roman Romanov believes.

“The issue of achieving justice for war victims is a very long-term matter. The standards of proof in such cases are quite high, it is important not to lower them, and this requires objective and professional work of all components of the justice system. Unfortunately, there are problems for which there are no legitimate mechanisms to solve,” explains Roman.

These mechanisms include the return of abducted civilians, including children, compensation for damage caused by the Russians, and many others. All of these processes are difficult to implement, but they are an important part of the systemic restoration of justice.

“It is very dangerous to reach compromises at the expense of justice. When injustice accumulates, it becomes a source of new, even more destructive conflicts,” says Roman Romanov. “Unfortunately, the law cannot stop the war at this time. But in parallel with the search for a peaceful solution, we need to think about how to reduce the level of human suffering, to prevent the dehumanization of society in the face of a cruel and unjust war. And for these tasks, international humanitarian law and international human rights law are crucial.”

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