On May 3, University of Ottawa Professor Paul Robinson testified before the Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development on the human rights situation in Russia and Ukraine. A transcript of his remarks are below.
I will speak as an academic who studies Russia and as a former army officer who has published on the topic of just war theory.
Let me highlight the difficulty of holding perpetrators to account in situations of civil conflict and war. Yesterday was the eighth anniversary of horrific events in the Ukrainian city of Odessa, when a building sheltering protesters who were demonstrating against the Maidan revolution was set on fire, resulting in the death of 42 people.
Nobody has ever been held to account for what happened, leading to this comment from the United Nations human rights office:
…the investigations into the violence have been affected by systemic institution‐ al deficiencies and characterized by procedural irregularities, which appear to indicate an unwillingness to genuinely investigate and prosecute those responsible.
Parties to conflict are consistently unwilling to deal with mis‐ deeds committed by their own side. This is likely to be the case again in the current war in Ukraine, in which both sides have accused each other of war crimes. Neither country has a good record of accountability in this area. The allegations of war crimes deserve thorough investigation, including those against Ukraine, not all of which can be dismissed as disinformation.
But I will focus on Russia, as that is my area of expertise.
Contrary to what many think, the Russian state is quite legalistic and most of the time sticks to the letter of the law, both domestically and internationally. However, when really important interests are at stake, Russia, like many other states, doesn’t let the law prevent it from doing what it wants. Even then, though, it matters to the Russian authorities to be seen to be obeying legal rules, to which end they often go out of their way to frame their actions as legal, even when they are not.
The Russian state has on occasion held its troops accountable for misdeeds in war, such as in Chechnya in the early 2000s, but generally only when the misdeeds in question could not be ignored. Given that independent media have now largely been eliminated in Russia, this probably no longer applies. While the Russian state overall has a good record of accepting judgments by international courts, including the European Court of Human Rights, its record is less good when it comes specifically to matters that it believes concern state security. Furthermore, an amendment to the Russian constitution last year states that decisions of international bodies shall not be enforced if they “contradict the Constitution of the Russian Federation”, a category that I imagine might be interpreted quite broadly according to the wishes of the political authorities.
In the current atmosphere, I think it is most unlikely that the Russian authorities will admit to any wrongdoing in Ukraine, let alone take any action to prosecute it or to hand over suspects to any international court. I would not expect that any form of international pressure will force Russia to comply with western demands. The invasion of Ukraine has made it clear that the Russian authorities no longer care what we think.
In short, options are limited. In any case, prosecuting human rights violations after the fact is less important than preventing them from happening in the first place. However awful war crimes may be, they account for a tiny fraction of the human suffering experienced in war. The war in Ukraine is being fought largely in an urban setting. Fighting in built-up areas, even when entirely following the laws of war, is extremely destructive. It tends to result in considerable loss of civilian life. We have seen this in recent years in Syria and Iraq, in cities like Raqqa, Mosul and Fallujah.
In modern conflicts, we have also seen the catch-all phrase “du‐ al-use targets” being used to justify attacks on a very broad category of potential targets. Beyond that, the laws of war actually permit what is euphemistically called “collateral damage”.
In war, human rights are violated daily on an entirely legal basis. Peace, even on unfavourable terms, is generally a much better way of protecting rights than prolonging war, however just the cause.
Despite this, in the past week NATO has stated that it will back Ukraine if necessary for years. The British government has stated that it will support Ukraine if it tries to retake Crimea, and the U.S. Secretary of Defense has stated that America’s aim is to weaken Russia. The human costs of these options, if put into practice, would surely be enormous. Even if Ukraine manages to halt the current offensive in Donbass, it is unlikely that it will have sufficient strength to recapture all its lost territories. Even if it could recapture them, it could not do so without inflicting on cities like Donetsk and Luhansk the same sort of damage the Russians have inflicted on Mariupol.
Ending suffering would require the war be brought to an end as rapidly as possible, but I am concerned we may be moving in the opposite direction.
On that point, I conclude. Thank you.