The Ukrainian government on Tuesday gave a green light to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate crimes committed on its territory since February 20, 2014, notably in the east of the country where some 8,000 people have been killed in a conflict between pro-Russian rebels and government forces.
“Ukraine accepts the jurisdiction of the Court for the purpose of identifying, prosecuting and judging the authors and accomplices of acts committed in the territory of Ukraine since 20 February 2014,” says a letter from Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkine to the ICC.
Ukraine is not an ICC member state, but it can accept the Court’s jurisdiction on a case by case basis under Article 12 (3) of the Rome Statute, the ICC’s founding treaty. Kiev has already given the ICC limited jurisdiction under a previous such declaration, and the ICC Prosecutor is currently conducting a preliminary examination into events in the country between November 21, 2013 and February 22, 2014. This latest move now expands the jurisdiction to crimes committed in the east, including possibly the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in which 298 people -- mainly Dutch -- died in July last year.
"What it means is that the prosecutor will now be able to probe crimes after February 22 last year, with an open-ended time frame," ICC spokesman Fadi El Abdallah told AFP.
But the ICC says this is not automatic. “It is for the ICC Prosecutor to decide whether or not to request the judges' authorisation to open an investigation,” it said in a press release.
The Ukrainian government’s letter is based on a February 4, 2015 declaration by the country’s parliament (Verkhovna Rada). That declaration says the parliament recognizes the jurisdiction of the ICC “for the purpose of bringing senior officials of the Russian Federation and leaders of terrorist organizations DNR (Donetsk People’s Republic) and LNR (Luhansk People’s Republic)” to justice for “war crimes and crimes against humanity”.
A UN report also issued on Tuesday says that “since the conflict began in eastern Ukraine in mid-April 2014, a total of at least 7,962 people – including Ukrainian armed forces, civilians and members of the armed groups – have been killed, and at least 17,811 injured”.
“Cases of killings, abductions, torture and ill-treatment, sexual violence, forced labour, ransom demands and extortion in the territories controlled by the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ and ‘Luhansk people’s republic’” have been documented, it says.
But the report says Ukrainian security forces are also to blame for abuses. It notes a “persistent pattern of arbitrary and incommunicado detention by the Ukrainian law enforcement, mainly by the Security Service of Ukraine, and by military and paramilitary units.”
“Ukraine’s decision to expand its acceptance of ICC jurisdiction is a clear signal of its commitment to accountability for grave crimes and an important step towards ending impunity,” said Kirsten Meersschaert of the Coalition for the ICC (CICC, international network of NGOs), but she also urged Ukraine to follow up with “concrete steps towards ratification of the Rome Statute to ensure Ukraine becomes a fully‐fledged ICC member state”.
"Ukraine has taken a crucial step towards ending violence and armed conflict in the east of the country. Victims now have an opportunity to access justice for heinous crimes they have suffered,” said Roman Romanov, director of the International Renaissance Foundation, Ukraine, as quoted by the CICC. “This move sends an important message to both Ukrainian society and to the international community that Ukraine rejects impunity for grave crimes. The next step is for national investigations to be stepped up and for Ukraine’s full cooperation with the ICC. Peace comes not when the guns are silent, but when justice is done."