What is the legal definition of genocide and how is it prosecuted?

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Olha Stefanishyna has warned that Russia is trying to commit genocide in her country.

Nearly a month after Vladimir Putin’s invasion, the Russian military has been repeatedly accused of committing war crimes in Ukraine as it surrounded major cities like Kharkiv and Mariupol and subjected them to destruction. intense bombing campaigns.

Children’s nurseries, maternity hospitals, apartment buildings, a community theatre, a shopping center and a Holocaust memorial are among the sites that have so far been reduced to rubble by Russian missiles, although the Kremlin denies intentionally targeting civilians.

Russian troops have also been accused of engaging in rape, torture and murder as weapons of war, a dehumanizing tactic targeting the most vulnerable that was also used by the Red Army as it closed in on the Nazi Germany during World War II and which is ultimately destined to demoralize the Ukrainian people beyond endurance.

Karim Khan, Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Netherlands, has already announced an investigation into the allegations, saying: “I am satisfied that there is a reasonable basis to believe that the crimes of war and alleged crimes against humanity have been committed in Ukraine.

Speaking via video link at Sophy Ridge Sunday on Sky News, Ms Stefanishyna was asked if she thought Russia’s brutal strategies amounted to genocide and responded“I absolutely believe in it. I am myself a lawyer and I am committed to the execution of the decision.

“It is really important that all the political leaders of the world…stay united and establish the anti-war coalition. Only this joint effort will allow us to prevent this massive genocide and murder in the 21st century.

She continued: “Putin and the Kremlin are the worst criminals. They are committing the worst crimes and they are carrying out a targeted attack against the Ukrainian population.

“Ukraine will resist for as long as it takes to ensure that no terror, no mass murder, no genocide is committed on this land in the 21st century. But it is absolutely clear that only a Ukrainian army, and only a Ukrainian president, will not be able to resist it alone.

The country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has also previously accused Russia of genocide.

Addressing Israel’s parliament over the weekend, Mr Zelensky invoked the horrors of the past century as he warned assembled lawmakers that Mr Putin was trying to implement a “permanent solution” against Ukraine, explicitly comparing his methods to the Nazi extermination campaign which led to the murders of 6 million European Jews in its concentration camps.

Corpses are buried in a mass grave in Mariupol

(Mstyslav Chernov/AP)

Describing the Russian attack on the Babi Yar memorial, where more than 30,000 Ukrainian Jews were massacred by the Nazis in 1941, Mr. Zelensky told his Israeli audience: “You know what this place means, where the victims of the Holocaust are buried”.

Bizarrely in light of what has happened since, Mr Putin has claimed that the real purpose of his “special military operation” in Ukraine is in fact to prevent genocide, making the baseless allegation that kyiv plans to eliminate the pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk after eight years. to fight in eastern Donbass and say his war is aimed at ‘demilitarizing and denazifying’ the country in the overriding interests of regional security, an extraordinary claim against a democratic government led by a Jewish president who has lost members of his own family in the Holocaust.

In response, Ukraine filed a complaint with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) arguing that Russia was misusing the term to justify its attack. The ICJ ruled on March 16 that Moscow must cease its military operation immediately, an order that has so far been rejected and ignored.

US President Joe Biden last week accused Putin of being a “war criminal” and will officially declare on Monday that the Myanmar government’s persecution of the country’s Rohingya Muslim population in recent years amounts to genocide, drawing a parallel between events in the Pacific and the contemporary assault on Ukraine by Russia.

But how exactly is genocide defined and how is it prosecuted?

As the United Nations Office for the Prevention of Genocide reminds us, the word was first coined by Polish human rights lawyer Raphael Lemkin in his book Axis rule in occupied Europe (1944), combining the Greek name “genos” (meaning tribe or race) with the Latin suffix “cide” (meaning to kill).

Residential apartment complexes devastated by Russian bombs in Kharkiv


Dr. Lemkin, who lost all but his brother in the camps, sought to convey the extent of the atrocities committed by the Third Reich in its systematic execution of Jews and connect it to other targeted acts of barbarism throughout human history.

He then led the campaign to have the crime recognized and codified as an international crime, a story movingly told in Philippe Sands’ recent book East-West Street (2016).

The United Nations General Assembly first recognized genocide as an international crime in 1946 and the United Nations Genocide Convention followed on December 9, 1948, which entered into force on January 12, 1951 and has since been ratified by 152 states. .

The first law of the convention establishes that genocide can occur in international and national war zones and in times of peace.

Article 2, on the other hand, defines the act, holding that it can be considered to have taken place if “one of the following acts [have been] committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”:

  • Kill party members
  • Serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
  • Deliberately inflicting on the group living conditions calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
  • Forced transfer of children from the group to another group

Article three describes the five crimes that can be punished accordingly:

  • Genocide
  • Conspiracy to Commit Genocide
  • Direct and public incitement to commit genocide
  • attempted genocide
  • Complicity in Genocide

However, the convention has been regularly criticized for offering too narrow a definition and for being too difficult to apply to specific circumstances, with some complaining that it makes no mention of targeted political or social groups or acts intended to desecrate. environmental or cultural infrastructures on which a given group depends for its survival.

Others have suggested that its requirement of proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” is too high a standard, making prosecution excessively difficult.

Another criticism of the phrase itself, raised by the former Secretary General of Médecins Sans Frontières, Alain Destexhe among others, is that it has been too easily thrown around in the context of impassioned political rhetoric, downplaying the seriousness of the accusation it is supposed to convey.

Some believe that the Holocaust was the only real genocide of the 20th century under the terms of the convention, but others have argued that the massacre of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks between 1915-20, the man-made famine of the Soviet Union in Ukraine between 1932-33, the Indonesian invasion of East Timor and the Khmer Rouge massacres in Cambodia in the 1970s and the atrocities in Rwanda in 1994 and Bosnia in 1995 could also be eligible.

More recently, the Islamic State’s persecution of Christian, Yazidi and Shia minorities in Iraq and Syria could be considered genocidal, much like Myanmar’s assault on the Rohingya.

The extent of the Russian invasion of Ukraine


Genocide can be prosecuted in national or national courts or internationally in criminal tribunals specially convened by the United Nations or the ICC.

Article six of the 1989 Rome Statute, its founding treaty, recognizes genocide under the same definition as a 1948 UN convention and grants the ICC jurisdiction over it, as well as crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression.

These bodies are responsible for conducting their own investigations and prosecutions and, if a charge is ultimately brought against a particular person as a result of their findings, the accused will be tried in The Hague before a panel of judges and presumed innocent until it is decided otherwise.

Trials can be held in public or in camera, depending on which scenario is in the interests of the witnesses who appear to testify.

Anyone found guilty is likely to face a long prison sentence, with 30 years or life behind bars depending on the seriousness of the offence. These courts do not have the capacity to impose the death penalty.

the first person to be convicted of genocide under the UN convention was Jean Paul Akayesu, Hutu mayor of the Rwandan town of Taba, in a historic decision handed down on September 2, 1998 by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

He will be followed by 29 others, also held responsible for their conduct during the same conflict.

Bosnian Serb commanders Radislav Krstic and Ratko Mladic were convicted of genocide in 2001 and 2007 respectively, as were the very elderly Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan in 2018 for their roles in the Khmer Rouge killings.

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