One year on from Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, we seem to have slipped back 80 years. Russia’s actions have been labelled ‘war crimes’, ‘crimes against humanity’, even ‘genocide’ – evils that we hoped were consigned to history by the development of international human rights law that followed the atrocities of the Second World War.
The Nuremberg Trials, the Genocide Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights introduced a revolutionary new concept: that nation states would no longer be allowed to kill and oppress with impunity. In marked contrast to the horrors that prompted it, it was a peaceful revolution – states voluntarily relinquished sovereignty and pooled it in international agreements.
Over the past decade, there has been a growing reaction – a counter-revolution – against that post-war consensus. Putin is at the vanguard of a movement that wants to return the world to dark and dangerous lawlessness.
The creation of an international framework to counter the worst aspects of authoritarian nationalism is now a lifetime away. Unsurprisingly, that framework needs some attention. A significant improvement has been proposed by the eminent international lawyer and author Philippe Sands. Within days of the Russian invasion, he floated the idea of a ‘Special Tribunal’ for Ukraine. He argues that if the key perpetrators of atrocities in Ukraine – Putin and his political and military henchmen – are to be held accountable, current international law needs strengthening. Genocide has too high an evidential bar; war crimes and crimes against humanity would only catch small fry; the crime of aggression would be heard in the International Criminal Court, which Russia does not recognise.
Sands’ proposal is supported by many leading legal, political, and cultural figures and has recently won the backing of the European Parliament and the German foreign minister. The UK has offered qualified support.
International human rights law was a response to the horrors of the Holocaust. Unsurprisingly, Jewish lawyers were instrumental in that process – Raphael Lemkin developed the concept of genocide, Hersch Lauterpacht that of crimes against humanity. René Cassin co-authored the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
On the first anniversary of the invasion, the determination to ensure Putin answers for his actions is gathering momentum. As a Jewish human rights charity, we share that determination. We owe it to those brave pioneers. And we owe it to future generations to preserve and build on the visionary system of international justice they worked so hard to create.