The importance of justice in wartime: ‘Atrocities must not go unpunished’


Since Russia’s full-scale invasion on 24 February 2022, Ukraine has documented more than 100,000 war crimes. Those crimes must be punished, writes Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in his peace plan. The Netherlands also attaches great importance to this form of justice and is calling for the perpetrators of war crimes to be held accountable.

Dutch support

Many harrowing accounts are emerging from Ukraine about the destruction of homes and hospitals, the killing of civilians, rape and child abduction. The Netherlands is supporting Ukraine in its quest for justice for these documented war crimes. Since the start of the war, the Netherlands has already provided more than €105 million for this purpose and has launched the Dialogue Group on Accountability for Ukraine. Ukraine is also being supported with legal expertise, for example through the European Union Advisory Mission in Ukraine (EUAM Ukraine) stationed in Kyiv, a special mission which assists Ukrainian police and public prosecutors in the investigation and prosecution of war crimes.

Participating in the mission on behalf of the Netherlands are Mark Roorda and Shan Patel. They are advising the Ukrainian government regarding the prosecution of war crimes. Mark explains: ‘The challenges facing Ukraine are immense. The highest priority is to win the war. That has financial implications, because most of the country’s budget is being spent on that. Consequently, there is less money available to seek justice for war crimes, even though there is an overwhelming need to do so. That is obviously because of the enormous number of suspected war crimes.’

Shan gives an example: ‘One of the issues we are currently advising on concerns the use of conflict-related sexual violence in detention centres, which is being used to subjugate detainees. This is a big issue in the Kherson region, but also happened in other regions formerly under Russian rule. This type of sexual violence is mainly directed at women, but men and even children are victims in some cases as well. When asked, we help the Ukrainian prosecution by reviewing cases and by providing advice where possible, for instance by using international jurisprudence to prove certain elements of a case. 

Enlarge image Shan Patel
Shan Patel of EUAM Ukraine.

‘Conflict-related sexual violence is being used to subjugate captive women, men and even children in some cases’

Shot dead in cold blood

Countering impunity is also a key priority at the Dutch embassy in Kyiv. Esselien van Eerten is the deputy head of mission there and is constantly hearing the terrible accounts of Russian violence. She recounts: ‘The reports that have been reaching us since the Russian invasion of Ukraine are so incredibly intense and harrowing. Innocent people have been shot dead in cold blood in the street, with their hands bound. Such atrocities must not be allowed to go unpunished. What is more, The Hague is an international symbol of peace and justice, with the International Criminal Court and the Register of Damage for Ukraine, for example. We really have to push for this. That’s something that we as a country can do.’

Enlarge image Esselien van Eerten met een priester in de kerk van Bucha
Esselien van Eerten.

‘Innocent people shot dead in cold blood in the street, with their hands bound.’

Nobel Peace Prize

Many initiatives to punish war crimes are emerging from Ukrainian society, for example from the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL) in Kyiv, a human rights organisation headed by Oleksandra Matviichuk. She describes the atrocities that she has seen over the past two years. ‘Our job is to document war crimes in as much detail as possible. We have been doing that work for a long time, as we have been at war since 2014, but since the full-scale invasion on 24 February 2022, we have had to record as many as 62,000 crimes in our database.’

She goes on to say: ‘People have been locked in crates, have had fingers and nails ripped off with brute force and, just recently, an entire family with three children was burnt alive by a Russian grenade in their own home. That shows just how ugly this war is.’

In 2022, Oleksandra was awarded the Nobel peace prize for her work. She was the first Ukrainian to receive the award, which, she says, was an endorsement for her organisation. ‘Russia is using war crimes as a means to instil fear in people and to break the Ukrainians’ will to fight. The crimes in our database are just the tip of the iceberg.’

Oleksandra continues: ‘We are grateful for the support of countries such as the Netherlands, which, in these turbulent times, has always shown itself to be our partner. It is good to see that a country takes decisions not only in the interests of its own security, economy and geopolitical position, but also on the basis of values such as freedom and human rights.’

Enlarge image Oleksandra Matviichuk
Oleksandra Matviichuk.

‘Russia uses war crimes to instil fear in people and to break the Ukrainians’ will to fight.’

Prosecution is possible

Mark Roorda closes by saying that any effort to punish war crimes is worthwhile. ‘It is very difficult to investigate and try war crimes while the war is still ongoing. A suspect may be on the front line, a crime scene may  be inaccessible or evidence may have been destroyed. But legally speaking, it is possible. Once you’ve made the case, then that’s it, you can prosecute. And you should, because if a line is not drawn for the Russians, they themselves will continue, and actors in other parts of the world are likely to think that they too can get away with similar crimes.’

Enlarge image
Image: ©Mark Roorda / EUAM
Mark Roorda in discussion with Ukranian prosecutors and police.

‘It is difficult to investigate and try war crimes while the war is still ongoing, but legally speaking it is possible.’

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