A Case for Calling Russian Actions in Ukraine Genocide

Anneliese Schenk-Day, Ohio State University

Published on: February 27, 2023

Photo: Reuters

The Ukrainian people have suffered considerably over the last year, directly experiencing countless human rights violations. Accounts of sexual assault, civilian casualties in occupied Russian territory, and mass graves have been rampant. Media outlets and scholars have debated whether these acts should be considered genocide. As we progress past the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is clear that Russia’s actions in Ukraine constitute genocide. These crimes will be tried by the International Criminal Court (ICC), given that they have recently opened an investigation into violence in the region.  

         The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was ratified by the United Nations (UN) in 1948 in the wake of the Holocaust, defines genocide as “acts that are committed to destroy, in whole or in part, a national group, race or religion”. It states that such acts as “the killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” fall under the definition of genocide (Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide).

There have been documented accounts of Russian forces kidnapping and deporting Ukrainian children to Russia, with estimates ranging from 5,500-180,000 children being forcibly removed. This transfer of Ukrainian children into Russian hands constitutes a lesser-known aspect of genocide, in which children of the effected group are taken away from their parents and culture in order to make them ethnically other, thus erasing the Ukrainian aspects of their identity. Russian soldiers have been systematically raping civilians to dehumanize the group, with accounts existing in nearly every previously Russian occupied region of Ukraine. Included in these systematic rapes are men and boys, a population that is frequently ignored in sexual assault cases by the international community. Mass graves have been uncovered throughout the country as Ukrainian forces take back territory, with many of the civilian bodies showing signs of torture. Though any one of these occurrences would qualify genocide, as they demonstrate an intentional and systematic attempt to destroy Ukrainians, the culmination of these acts makes it abundantly clear that Russia is indeed committing genocide against the Ukrainian people.

The larger question remains: will Russia be held accountable? In 2002, the ICC was created. They have international jurisdiction over crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, crimes of aggression, and war crimes, through the Rome Statute. Though neither Ukraine nor Russia have ratified the Rome Statute, Ukraine gave the court ad hoc jurisdiction over crimes committed within their borders the wake of Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea. The jurisdiction is still in effect today and could be used as the legal basis for trying Russian officials. However, based on the court’s previous cases, if the party guilty of genocide wins the conflict or is a major superpower committing genocide within its borders, they will not be tried. A key example of this is the ICC’s current failure to prosecute the treatment of the Uyghurs in China, a nation similar to Russia in its level of international pull and failure to ratify the Rome Statute. There is more hope in the case of Russia though, due to the ICC’s current open investigation in Ukraine. However, if Russia wins, they will likely not only not be tried by the ICC but may continue the systematic destruction of the Ukrainian people. Should Ukraine prevail, Russian officials will almost certainly see their day in court, albeit slowly.  

There will be a significant lag in prosecution of Russia at the ICC. This is due to the courts inability to directly pursue their warrants, as the ICC lacks an enforcing power such as a police force that could be used to seize wanted individuals. Additionally, the Kremlin has been unresponsive to the court’s requests in recent years, and since international sanctions have been placed on Russian citizens, the chances of cooperative nations detaining the wanted parties is low. Once individuals are tried, however, they will likely be found guilty at rates higher than previous ICC tribunals. This is due to the scrupulous work that Ukrainian citizens and media outlets have done throughout the conflict documenting crimes of genocide. The use of video footage has yet to be seen in high volume within ICC or other international cases, with most of the prominently tried crimes of genocide having taken place in the mid 1990s when cell phones and internet access were rare.

Russia is guilty of crimes of genocide as they attempt to destroy Ukrainians through the forced removal of children, mass rape, and slaughter of civilians. So long as Ukraine wins the war, Russian officials will stand trial at the ICC for these atrocities, but such a victory is increasingly dependent on foreign aid. Therefore, international support for Ukraine is vital, as justice for innocent lives lost hang in the balance. We must continue to demonstrate our support for Ukraine if we are to ensure Russian officials see their day in court.

Anneliese Schenk-Day is a PhD Student in Sociology at the Ohio State University. Her research focuses broadly on mass violence, particularly genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.