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Nobel Peace Prize Laureate’s visit to MIGS in Montreal

June 11, 2024
By Bogdan Lytvynenko

War crimes and impunity: Is the Kremlin’s invasion above international law?

At the inaugural John Lemieux Human Rights Lecture, Ukrainian Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Oleksandra Matviichuk outlines the challenges – and solutions – for bringing justice amid Russia’s war on Ukraine

Copyright: Julian Barnes

In the third year of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Oleksandra Matviichuk arrived in Montréal on a mission: to inch closer to serving justice for all the documented Russian war crimes as a precondition for peace on her native land. 

At the inaugural John Lemieux Human Rights lecture organized by the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS) at Concordia University, Matviichuk was joined by the Hon. Chris Alexander, former Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship of Canada (IRCC), the Hon. Irwin Cotler, former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, and Mark MacKinnon, The Globe and Mail’s senior international correspondent.

The expert panel, moderated by La Presse journalist Laura-Julie Perreault, also discussed Canada’s role in countering the authoritarian world order on the battlefield, in the media, and in the courtroom — and whether the nation is doing enough. 


Documenting war crimes for legal action

As the head of the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL) based in Kyiv, Ukraine, Matviichuk has built a national network of experts to record Russian war crimes against the civilian population for future trials. In the past two years, her human rights organization jointly documented more than 72,000 cases, which Matviichuk says is “just the tip of the iceberg.”

Earlier this year, the CCL also published a proposal for the release of unlawfully detained Ukrainian civilians by exerting pressure on the Kremlin amid the war. 

“We are documenting something more than just violations of the Geneva and Hague Conventions,” she added. “We are documenting human pain.”

Matviichuk shared one of such instances, telling the story of Ilya and Natalia Matvienko, a 10-year-old boy and his mother who were trapped in the besieged city of Mariupol in the early days of the invasion. As Russian forces did not allow the Red Cross to evacuate civilians or bring in supplies, the family had to melt snow to avoid dying from dehydration. Then, Russian bombardments caused the boy to lose not only his home but also his own mother, whose head injury turned out to be fatal. Meanwhile, the boy’s leg was fragmented into pieces. 

‘We are in a situation where the law does not work’

With such ongoing atrocities, does the international legal framework possess enough authority to hold war criminals accountable for their actions? In the context of authoritarian giants such as Russia, the answer is not particularly promising. 

“The problem is that there is no international court which can prosecute Putin and his

[entourage] for the crime of aggression. Even the International Criminal Court (ICC) has no jurisdiction in the situation of Russia’s war against Ukraine. So we face an accountability gap,” said Matviichuk in an interview with MIGS.

Indeed, as Russia has initially signed but never ratified the Rome Statute, the ICC’s founding treaty, the country never became a member-state subject to the court’s jurisdiction. In March 2023, the ICC already issued an international arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin and children’s rights commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova. While both officials were meant to be detained over war crime allegations of the unlawful deportation of children from Ukraine’s occupied areas to Russia, both Putin and Lvova-Belova still remain untouched. 

To assist in this matter, Canada supported Ukraine’s mission to bring back an estimated 19,000 deported minors to their families as a co-chair of the International Coalition for the Return of Ukrainian Children. So far, however, fewer than 400 children have been successfully returned.

Meanwhile, Putin’s apparent immunity also applies to the United Nations’ (UN) International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling from March 2022, requiring Russia to immediately suspend the military operations in Ukraine, where the Kremlin’s disobedience — and missiles — strike again.

“I currently have no legal tools to protect people from forced disappearances, denial of their identity, forcible adoption of their own children, rapes, filtration camps, and mass graves,” stated Matviichuk.


Targeting the crime of aggression

The former Justice Minister Irwin Cotler, who is currently the International Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, supported Matviichuk’s calls to organize a new, entirely separate judiciary procedure for those who launched the full-scale invasion.

“The establishment of an independent international tribunal for the crime of aggression would hold Putin and the military and political leadership in Russia — and those aiding and abetting from Belarus and elsewhere — accountable,” said Cotler. 

Several models of the proposed ad hoc international criminal tribunal for the Russian Federation have been discussed, including those based on a treaty between the Government of Ukraine and the Council of Europe, or between Ukraine and the UN, acting on the recommendation of its General Assembly. 

With a truly international court, personal immunities of state leaders such as Vladimir Putin would then only apply to domestic courts. However, yet again, securing Putin’s presence without the cooperation of future Russian authorities would represent another hurdle to not only achieving justice, but also preventing future invasions. 

“That's why we have to persecute for the crime of aggression. We have to send a strong signal that if you start the war, regardless of whether you win this war or lose this war, you will be punished,” said Matviichuk.


Brutal force as the only solution?

Since 1991, Russia has occupied the Transnistria region of Moldova, invaded Chechnya twice, occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, annexed the Crimean peninsula, and directly supported the armed separatist movement in Ukraine’s Donbas region before the full-scale invasion of 2022. 

“Each time, it was all attended by indifference and inaction on the part of the international community, which led really to an impunity, incentivizing further atrocities and further aggression,” Cotler explained.

As the moderator, Laura-Julie Perreault from La Presse then asked Matviichuk about the “irony” of calling for more weapons after winning the Nobel Prize for Peace. In 2022, she accepted the honour on behalf of CCL, together with an imprisoned Belarusian activist Ales Bialitski and Russia’s human rights NGO Memorial, which has now been dissolved by Russia’s Supreme Court.

In her response, Maitviichuk doubled down on her message: sending more military aid to Ukraine is the only way to stop this horror. 

“As a human rights lawyer, I can't wave the Geneva Convention flag in the face of a Russian tank. The Russian tank will not stop,” she said. “I think it is a trap when Western democracies start trying to develop red lines for themselves not to make Putin upset… Russia has no red lines.”


Canada’s role as a military ally

For the year 2024, Ottawa has committed to provide $3.02 billion to Kyiv in critical financial and military support. According to Statista, Canada contributes around 0.31 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) to Ukraine’s financial, humanitarian and military needs, similarly to the United States.

Yet former IRCC Minister Chris Alexander believes that figure should reach 1 percent of GDP, which would reflect not only on the dollar amount but also on the technical level of military aid to ensure Ukraine’s survival as a sovereign nation.

“It is only the Ukrainian army that is fighting this evil at this point,” said Alexander. “Yes, with our support, but we have not even given the Ukrainian army the benefit of the military support we sent to Afghanistan. No air power, no command and control, and no on-the-ground training [...] which we stopped doing in 2021.”

His remarks were made exactly 80 years after Canadians landed on the beaches of Normandy to reverse the changing world order during the Nazi regime and occupation. Now, with Iran and North Korea actively fuelling the Kremlin’s war machine, the former minister added that Matviichuk’s success on the legal front heavily depends on Ukraine’s success on the battlefield. 

“If we do not see through the cause that [Matviichuk] is leading in many ways, we will all see standards of democracy, respect for equality and human rights decline in all of our countries. And these authoritarians, these tyrants will be on the march,” Alexander concluded.

Losing interest in the war

For 836 days and counting, Ukraine continues to serve as a human shield against a major attack on democratic principles and freedom enjoyed in the Western world. Yet it is not uncommon for foreigners to ask Ukrainians: “Is the war really still going on?”

Mark MacKinnon, who has been covering Ukraine’s occupation on the ground since 2014 for The Globe and Mail, says Canadian readers have become immune to drone strikes and destruction, especially in frontline towns such as Vovchansk and Bakhmut as the war dragged on. 

“I think part of the truth is — and we see this in our numbers — people grasped the stakes more easily when Russia was pushing towards Kyiv or on the outskirts of Kharkiv. These were cities, big European cities that Canadians knew about and could picture themselves living in,” he said in an interview with MIGS.

Besides covering military advances and destruction, which resulted in at least 30,457 civilian casualties verified by the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s Office, MacKinnon has extensively focused on personal stories of Ukrainians to show the human aspect of war-time reality. 

Yet MacKinnon explained that, while the Canadian audience is not indifferent to Ukraine, only the most dramatic moments will fully re-engage the readers in the third year of the invasion.

“And I fear another moment like this is coming,” he added. “Maybe it’s the siege of Kharkiv, if it comes to that.”

As Matviichuk vowed to continue her legal battle for justice against war criminals, the panel sent one final message to the Canadian audience:

The Russian invasion is not a Hollywood movie one can afford to watch from afar, as one day, the horrors unfolding on the TV screen may inch closer to the homes of those who observe in silence. 


Bogdan Lytvynenko is a 2024 Rhodes Scholar and holds a B.A. in Journalism with a minor in Economics from Concordia University. Bogdan has reported on traumatic survival stories of Ukrainian refugees with the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies and has served as the Managing Editor of The Concordian newspaper. He is originally from Dnipro, Ukraine, where he trained professionally as a ballroom dancer and became a European Championship finalist. 


Photos by Julian Harber

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