The atrocities in Ukraine never end. Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) even warns of a further escalation. But what crimes can Russia be accused of because of its war of aggression in the neighboring country?
Is genocide being committed in Ukraine? Yes, says Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy because of the many civilians killed in Bucha. “These are war crimes and they will be recognized by the world as genocide.”
Parties to a conflict often accuse each other of genocide. Usually it is about increasing international attention. But even US President Joe Biden has already spoken of genocide with regard to the events in Ukraine, and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia have even recognized this in resolutions.
In Germany, the voices are more restrained. There is no crime worse than genocide in international criminal law, punishable by life imprisonment. According to Section 6 of the Code of Crimes against International Law, a prerequisite for genocide is that action is taken with the intention of destroying a national, racial, religious or ethnic group as such, in whole or in part. This is what Article II of the UN Genocide Convention, adopted in 1948, says.
International law expert Christian Marxsen from the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law in Heidelberg does not see evidence of a genocide in Ukraine as fulfilled.
In an interview with the Tagesspiegel, Marxsen argued that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intention is not to destroy the people as such. “Does Russia really want to destroy the people of Ukraine?”
In his opinion, it’s more about Ukrainian identity. “A different political system is to be imposed on Ukraine. That too is clearly against international law, but you have to look very carefully.”
After years of discussions, the Bundestag passed a resolution recognizing the genocide in Armenia in 2016. The Union, SPD and Greens had submitted the application together, it is considered an important sign for the country.
“I find it a problematic tendency to rashly draw the sharpest legal registers. The other crimes that Russia can be accused of are also severely punished,” says Marxsen. At this point in time it is difficult to make a definitive statement.
If the right-wing politician and parliamentary director of the FDP parliamentary group Stephan Thomae has his way, there could soon be a resolution in the Bundestag classifying Russia’s actions against Ukraine as genocide.
“My feeling tells me that we are dealing with a genocide here,” says Thomae to the Tagesspiegel. “As a lawyer, however, it is clear to me that a thorough examination is required to determine whether the characteristics of a genocide are present. The bar for this is high.” Thomae now wants to campaign for such a test.
“There are reports that hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian children have been trafficked to Russia. And forcibly transferring children to another group is a classic tactic used to wipe out a people.”
Thomae also sees the fact that Putin denies the existence of the Ukrainian people as such as a clear indication that everything Ukrainian should be erased. “That shows how badly Putin wants to destroy this country.”
His parliamentary group is just at the beginning of consultations and is exchanging ideas with international law experts. “We are discussing it intensively and observing what is happening. We only want to initiate a parliamentary procedure to classify it as genocide if such a classification is also legally secured.”
One advantage of the classification is that it is not only possible to take action against soldiers and officers in war, as in the case of war crimes or crimes against humanity. “Investigations into genocide are aimed directly at the Russian leadership.”
The federal prosecutor general, the highest German prosecuting authority, could also investigate genocide against Putin. “There has already been a case in which the Federal Public Prosecutor brought members of the Syrian secret service, against whom allegations of torture had been made, before a German court.”
It is an absolutely exceptional case that national prosecutors investigate even though neither the perpetrator nor the victim nor the location of the crime have anything to do with Germany. “But the German Code of Crimes against International Law makes exactly that possible.”
With his assessment of the situation in Ukraine, Thomae is not alone. In a case study, the Hamburg expert on international law Otto Luchterhandt came to the conclusion that the sealing off and systematic destruction of the port city of Mariupol by the Russian armed forces constituted genocide and that Putin should be held criminally responsible.
He also regards the intent of the crime as proven. Because the Russian army is proceeding with “genocidal intent to destroy” “the citizenry of the city in its entirety” and not just against individual citizens who accidentally become victims.
The perpetrator is Putin personally, because as the supreme commander of the Russian armed forces, he must be held responsible for the objectively genocidal actions of the troops under his command against the civilian population and have made the fate of Mariupol a “top priority”. “The encirclement and sealing off of the city, the systematic destruction of the residential areas, the continuous bombardment of the civilian population and the starvation of the population were ultimately based on his orders.”
Marieluise Beck, a former member of the Bundestag for the Greens and co-founder of the NGO Liberale Moderne, who visited Ukraine herself, also sees signs of genocide. This includes the fact that Putin denied Ukraine’s right to exist as a nation and its identity as a people.
Targeted attacks on civilians and the blocking of escape routes for the civilian population also speak in favor of this, as do deprivation of livelihoods, mass rapes, deportations to Russia and the separation of children from their families for Russification purposes.
“After my experience with Bosnia, I assume that one day an international court will find that the Russian army is responsible for a genocide in different places in Ukraine,” Beck tells the Tagesspiegel. “It’s too late for the victims. But it will be important for the historical setting of this war and for naming those responsible.”