The brutality of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has shocked many, even as Ukrainians and regional experts have noted that today’s war crimes fit broader patterns of Russian aggression against Ukrainians stretching back centuries. As evidence of atrocities continues to accumulate, the international legal community is closely monitoring the situation.
In May 2022, the New Lines Institute and Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights issued an independent legal inquiry that found the Russian Federation in breach of the United Nations Genocide Convention’s prohibition on direct and public incitement to genocide. The report identified a serious risk of genocide. In other words, the first few months of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine provided ample evidence to trigger the central duty of the United Nations Genocide Convention, namely to prevent genocide in Ukraine.
The UN Genocide Convention legally obligates its 152 signatories, including Russia, to act as soon as they become aware (or should have become aware) of genocide risks. All forms of violence should be condemned everywhere, but genocides have been declared the “crime of crimes” in international law, as they target a community’s most basic right to exist.
The horrors of genocidal violence sometimes obscure a crucial point in analyses of Russia’s egregious actions against Ukrainians. While the Genocide Convention forbids genocidal violence itself (“the commission of genocide”), it also prohibits four other related actions: Conspiracy to commit genocide, attempts to commit genocide, complicity in genocide, and direct and public incitement to genocide (Article III). The inciting language of Russian state actors has long met the “direct and public” standard and is a crime with no statute of limitations.
I am the principal author of a new report by the New Lines Institute and Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, an updated legal analysis into the evidence of Russia’s breaches of the UN Genocide Convention in Ukraine. This report features nearly sixty pages of verifiable, open-source information.
To begin, we reviewed Russian state actors’ direct and public incitement to genocide since they were formally put on notice regarding these breaches of the Genocide Convention in May 2022. Organizing verifiable examples through an expert framework on the five “D’s” of incitement (demonization, delegitimization, dehumanization, denial, and disinformation), we found durable genocidal incitement across all levels of Russian state authority.
Over the past year, direct and public incitement to genocide by Russian state actors neither decreased in tone or in volume. In fact, we demonstrate that this specific breach of the Genocide Convention escalated. New dehumanizing tropes, such as “de-Satanizing” Ukrainians, have even been introduced through powerful, state-endorsed platforms. In legal language, there are reasonable grounds to believe that Russia is responsible for direct and public incitement to genocide against Ukrainians.
This inciting language is horrifying on its own, as it calls for the erasure and destruction of Ukrainians through graphic slurs and threats. However, Russia’s actions in Ukraine have mirrored the violence of the rhetoric coming out of Moscow.
Over the past year, we have identified evidence of a surge in systematic and coordinated genocidal tactics against Ukrainians. Our legal analysis found reasonable grounds to believe that Russia is responsible for the commission of genocide. This position is supported both by actions prohibited in the Genocide Convention and an underlying pattern of atrocities indicating that Russia aims to destroy the Ukrainian national group in part.
While Russia’s direct orchestration and participation in actions prohibited under the Genocide Convention are undeniable, such as the forcible transfer of Ukrainian children, our report breaks new ground by linking these actions of genocide with evidence of its mental element, the motive to destroy a national group in whole or in part.
We invite others to engage with the sheer volume of evidence captured in our report and avoid allowing Russia’s daily atrocities to cloud our vision. When Russian state actors’ words and actions are analyzed systematically and across the timeline of the full-scale invasion, abundant evidence indicates that Russia’s genocidal tactics are escalating. The Genocide Convention compels the international community to proactively meet the challenges posed by Russia’s clear and evolving genocidal tactics, halting this genocide in motion.
In addition, our report reveals singular aspects of Russia’s genocide, including documented evidence of all five acts prohibited in the Genocide Convention’s Article II: Killing, serious bodily and mental harm, inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the victims’ physical destruction, measures to prevent births, and the forcible transfer of children. The Genocide Convention does not require evidence of all five prohibited acts to meet the legal standard. Russia’s violation of all five acts of genocide is therefore particularly heinous and adds to the overall portrait of their escalating attempts to commit genocide in Ukraine.
Looking ahead, many atrocity prevention policy and legal precedents will be set by the international community’s response to Russia’s escalating genocide in Ukraine. Genocide reports can make for harrowing reading, but nothing can compare to the horrors Ukrainians face each day. We hope our report will galvanize both policy and public action to advocate for the millions of Ukrainians whose lives have been forever changed by Russia’s genocide, and whose safety is not yet secured.
(c) 2023, Atlantic Council