Student blog post: Can the events that happened during the Maydan protests in Ukraine be qualified as crimes against humanity?

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This post (edited for publication) is contributed to our blog as part of a series of work produced by students for assessment within the module ‘Public International Law’. Following from last year’s blogging success, we decided to publish our students’ excellent work in this area again in this way. The module is an option in the second year of Bristol Law School’s LLB programme. It continues to be led by Associate Professor Dr Noelle Quenivet. Learning and teaching on the module was developed by Noelle to include the use of online portfolios within a partly student led curriculum. The posts in this series show the outstanding research and analytical abilities of students on our programmes. Views expressed in this blog post are those of the author only who consents to the publication

Guest Author: Susanna Lando 

November 2013: President Yanukovych announces that Ukraine will not be signing the European Association Agreement. Within a couple of days the situation gets out of hand. The question however is: are the acts committed enough to qualify as crimes against humanity under the International Criminal Court (ICC) Statute? In my opinion, they are.

After President Yanukovych’s decision went public, peaceful protests started in the capital Kiev. The facts are briefly outlined in the diagram I have made below (Euromaidan Press for details).

© Susanna Lando

Source: here

Although not a party to the Rome Statute, Ukraine accepted the jurisdiction of the ICC by a declaration under Article 12(3).The prosecutor however chose  not to continue the investigations on the basis that neither the widespread nor the systematic requirements were present (see I Marchuk, ‘No Crimes Against Humanity During the Maydan Protests in Ukraine? Or the ICC’s Prosecutor Flawed interpretation of Crimes Against Humanity?’ (2017) 35 Boston U Int’l LJ 50-55). The concept of crimes against humanity is outlined in Article 7 of the Rome Statute. Its chapeau contains two elements: the acts must be widespread or systematic and directed against a civilian population (see video for details). In addition, both an actus reus and a mens rea must be identified. The actus reus consists of acts of serious violence listed under Article 7(1)(a)-(k). The mens rea requires knowledge of the attacks on the civilian population, and the awareness that the acts constitute part of the attacks (ICTY, Prosecutor v Kunarac, para 99)

Let’s first look at the chapeau and whether it is fulfilled in relation to the events that took place during the Maydan protests. A civilian population comprises any person who is not a member of the armed forces (Article 50(1) of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions). A person ceases to be a civilian when he/she takes a direct part in the hostilities which is defined as the ‘(collective) resort by the parties to the conflict to means and methods of injuring the enemy’ (Interpretative Guidance on the Notion of Direct Participation in the Hostilities 43). In this case, however, the Maydan protests were performed peacefully and without weapons, therefore the individuals can be classed as civilians.

As the test for widespread or systematic is a disjunctive test (ICC, Situation in the Republic of Kenya, ICC, para 94), I will therefore only examine the requirement for systematic attacks. This concept was defined in Prosecutor v Katanga (ICC, para 394) and Prosecutor v Gbagbo (ICC, para 223) which referred to ‘the organised nature of the acts of violence and the improbability of their random occurrence’. The acts were frequent between December 2013 and February 2014 and they followed a clear scheme; there was an escalation in the choice of the different methods of violence: the beatings, the kidnappings, restrictive anti-protest laws, and finally the use of snipers and grenades. The pattern is, I believe, clear, and the acts were premeditated and planned as mentioned in Prosecutor v Akayesu (ICTR, para 580), which shows that the mens rea for the act was also present. Furthermore, it should be noted that the fact that they might have been committed for the President’s personal ends is irrelevant (ICTY, Prosecutor v Kunarac, para 103).

The specific crime concerned in this case in my opinion is persecution (Article 7(1)(h) Rome Statute). This entails three further requirements to the ‘chapeau’ of crimes against humanity. These include: ‘severe deprivation of fundamental rights contrary to international law (Commentary Rome Statute), on the basis of political, […] religious grounds or gender, and in connection with any act referred to in article 7(1)’.

With regards to fundamental rights being violated on the basis of discriminatory grounds, I believe there was a breach of Articles 7 and 10 of the ECHR in conjunction with article 14. Article 7 states that there shall be ‘no punishment without the law’. In this case the Maydan protesters were unlawfully arrested for charges with a higher penalty than the one applicable before the anti-protest laws. Article 10 refers to people’s freedom of expression which was clearly violated as the anti-protest laws cannot be viewed as falling within any of the lawful grounds for restrictions listed in the Convention (such as territorial integrity and prevention of crime). Finally, Article 14 regards discrimination on the basis of any ground such as ‘ethnicity, religion, political or other opinions […]’. The facts clearly suggest that the Ukrainian protesters were discriminated against because of their political ideas. Therefore both the first and second requirement for persecution are satisfied.

Finally, the acts must have been committed in connection to other acts enumerated in Article 7(1) of the ICC Statute. As Zimmermann explains, ‘[e]ven isolated acts […] will, if committed in connection with widespread or systematic acts of persecution, render those acts […] crimes against humanity’ (A Zimmermann, ‘Implementing the Statute of the International Criminal Court: The German Example’ in LC Vohrah et al (eds), Man’s Inhumanity to Man: Essays on International law in Honour of Antonio Cassese (Kluwer 2003) 977, 984). In my opinion it is therefore quite evident, based on the facts, that the beatings, kidnappings, shootings and anti-protest laws were aimed at intimidating and mistreating the population in order to force them to stop the protests.

Therefore, I argue that there are no doubts as to the nature of the crimes committed during the Maydan protests: they were crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, there has been a lack of interest in the application of international criminal law in this matter.