International NGOs urge Zelenskyy to finally sign law on punishing war criminals

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Peace to Ukraine, Russian Aggression

Article by: Yuliia Rudenko
Edited by: Alya Shandra

Five leading international organizations issued a public letter to Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy and Members of the Parliament with regard to the “extensive delay, which appears to be contrary to domestic law” in signing the bill on war criminals.

These entities are International Federation for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, International Partnership for Human Rights, Parliamentarians for Global Action, and Women’s Initiative for Gender Justice.

What is the law on war criminals and why is it withheld, being so vital?

What is the law on war criminals about?

With the outbreak of Russian aggression against Ukraine in Crimea and Donbas since 2014, thousands of innocent people have been killed, wounded and displaced. War crimes committed by Russian proxy forces in the occupied territories of Ukraine include kidnapping, torture, extrajudicial executions, and sexual violence.

Until recently, Ukraine had no legal tools to investigate these felonies and prosecute offenders. That is because the Criminal Code of Ukraine lacked legal definitions of war crimes and crimes against humanity. This made criminal legislation unusable with regard to the most serious crimes committed in the occupied territories.

To make amends, the Ukrainian government drew up law No. 1164-IX “On amendments to certain legislative acts of Ukraine concerning the implementation of provisions of international criminal law and humanitarian law” with the active participation of civil society. The Parliament of Ukraine passed the bill on 20 May 2021.

Apart from allowing for effective investigation and prosecution of war crimes in occupied Ukraine, the document:

  1. sends a clear-cut message to Moscow that the punishment of its war criminals is inevitable;
  2. restores justice for the victims of war crimes since i). war criminals are not entitled to amnesty, ii). war crimes have no statute of limitations and entail a harsher penalty compared to regular offences, iii). allows foreign courts to prosecute Russia-backed war criminals if, for example, they hide in foreign states

The very last point deserves special attention. This novelty enables a court in, for instance, Poland or France, to investigate most serious crimes committed beyond their borders and not by or against their nationals. In the beginning of this year, this principle (referred to as “universal jurisdiction” in international law) was applied in Germany. For the first time, a court outside Syria convicted a representative of the Syrian regime of aiding and abetting a crime against humanity.

A 44-year old member of the Syrian secret police named as Eyad A. stood accused of escorting 30 protesters to imminent torture and was convicted to 4.5 years in prison. Prosecutors, in their final pleas, described killing and torture in Syria on an “almost industrial scale.”

This principle is a light at the end of the tunnel for countless victims of armed conflicts worldwide — especially victims of crimes against humanity committed in the Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine.

Ukraine moves closer to restoring justice for victims of Russia’s war crimes

Why is the law delayed?

Approved by the Parliament in May 2021, the bill now awaits the President’s signature and publication. However, the law sees the Head of State’s inaction for the fifth month.

Under Article 94 of the Constitution of Ukraine, the President should have signed the law within 15 days of its adoption or returned it for reconsideration to the Parliament. Oppositely, the act should be considered approved by the President and must be signed and officially promulgated.

According to Yevhen Zakharov, Head of the Board of Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, the reason why Zelenskyy’s stalls the signing is fear that foreign courts may as well bring to justice Ukrainian citizens who participated in the conflict and committed grave crimes. He says the President is afraid his image may suffer.

Moreover, there is a concern within military circles that the law may be directed against defenders of Ukraine, especially volunteer fighters who went to war in 2014-2015 having an unregulated status, claims Volodymyr Horbach, a political analyst at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation. He also adds that Russian and pro-Russian forces may use the bill to accuse and demonize the Ukrainian army.

Oleksandra Matviychuk, Head of the Board at the Center for Civil Liberties, explained why these worries make no sense drawing a legal parallel:

“The fact that a murder case may be falsified does not mean that accountability for murder should be deleted from the criminal code.”

Ihor Kozlovskyi, a former hostage of the militants from self-proclaimed Russia-controlled Donetsk People’s Republic and now a senior fellow at the Philosophy Institute of Skovoroda of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine believes the law can protect the Kremlin’s prisoners on the occupied territories in Ukraine because potential war criminals will know they won’t be able to escape justice.

What do the five international organizations say in their appeal?

In their letter dated 30 September, the five international organizations call upon the President of Ukraine to execute and promulgate the law on war criminals.

They stress that it is Ukraine that has the primary responsibility to investigate, prosecute and punish the perpetrators of serious international crimes and provide redress to victims.

Matviychuk noted that “It is strange to appeal to international partners while Ukraine herself has not done its basic homework.”

She further adds that there is no reasonable justification for this vital law to remain with no further action on the side of the government of Ukraine.

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Edited by: Alya Shandra

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