What laws and customs of war does Russia violate in Ukraine?

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Since 2014, the Ukrainian authorities have repeatedly stated that Russia has violated various international agreements in the occupied territories of the Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk regions. After the full-scale invasion, the number of such statements has rapidly increased. Ukrainian human rights organizations are monitoring and documenting international crimes committed by Russian occupiers during the war. The Ukrainian government, along with many other countries, is suing Russia and its governement in international courts.

Since 1864, when the First Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field was adopted, every war in the world is regulated by the laws and customs of international humanitarian law. These constraints were put in place to minimize the brutality and lethality of wars. The vast majority of these norms have now become universal.

Millions of lives were lost before humankind realized that war requires rules that everyone must follow. At first glance, war appears to have nothing to do with the rule of law and is instead an incarnation of total chaos. There are, however, examples of military operations that followed the laws and customs of warfare. That’s how countries uphold world order and remain members of the civilized world.

At the same time, there are countries that do not comply with these laws. One of such countries is Russia.

The First Hague Peace Conference, May - June 1898

The Hague Conventions

The rules of war were first laid out in The Hague and Geneva Conventions. These international treaties are universal in the sense that they are binding on all states without exception, and they are used during wars. They do not outright prohibit warfare, but they do provide a clear framework for what is allowed. Ignoring these conventions is equivalent to the voluntary withdrawal of the offending state from the civilized world.

The Hague Conventions were the first multilateral international treaties to address the process of waging war (they established permitted weapons and methods). In 1899, the First Convention was adopted at a conference in The Hague. In 1907, some points of the convention were changed and expanded to include new topics, including war at sea. This is how the Second Hague Convention came about.

It’s worth noting that the Russian Empire was one of the initiators of limiting wartime brutality and enshrining relevant provisions in international law.

The Hague Conventions were largely ineffective during the First World War because the parties to the conflict ignored them. Just like the Russians are doing today.

Geneva Conventions

The Second World War further emphasized the need for comprehensive protection of people—citizens, combatants (soldiers actively engaged in hostilities), and prisoners of war. That’s why four Geneva Conventions were adopted in 1949.

The First Geneva Convention aims to ameliorate the condition of wounded and sick members of the armed forces.
The Second Geneva Convention addresses the fate of military personnel wounded at sea.
The Third Geneva Convention regulates the treatment of prisoners of war.
The Fourth Geneva Convention protects the rights of civilians.

In 1977, two Additional Protocols were adopted to the 1949’s Geneva Conventions, relating to the protection of victims of international and non-international armed conflicts.

The signing of the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, August 12, 1949.

In 2005, a third Additional Protocol was agreed upon, concerning the adoption of a new distinctive emblem in the form of a Red Crystal to go with the previously adopted Red Cross and Red Crescent.

These three emblems on a white background are internationally recognized symbols of aid to the wounded and sick during armed conflicts. They should be placed on humanitarian and medical vehicles, buildings, and the clothing of medical personnel and others involved in humanitarian work in order to identify and distinguish them from military personnel.

As of 2022, 196 countries have joined the Geneva Conventions.

Actions that breach the Geneva Conventions are violations of international humanitarian law and, in grave cases, may constitute war crimes. The latter falls under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

In 1954, the USSR ratified the Geneva Conventions. After its dissolution, Russia declared itself the legal successor of the Soviets and, therefore, recognized itself as a party to international treaties signed by the USSR.

In 2019, Russia withdrew from Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions relating to the protection of victims of international armed conflicts, consequently blocking the work of the Independent International Commission to establish the facts of its crimes in Syria and later in Ukraine. However, Russia’s partial withdrawal from the Geneva Conventions does not absolve the aggressor country of responsibility for violating international humanitarian law and war crimes committed during the war in Ukraine.

Russia can still be held accountable for violating the norms of the Geneva Conventions and Protocols.

The Geneva and Hague Conventions are the basis of modern international humanitarian law. Their clauses frequently overlap and complement one another. They clearly distinguish between those who can be attacked (enemy armies) and those who are strictly prohibited from being attacked (civilians, except those who have taken up arms and are directly involved in hostilities). The conventions protect people who can no longer take part in the war (prisoners of war and the wounded) as well as those who provide medical care (doctors and paramedics). Conventions regulate which weapons can and cannot be used in armed conflict.

Which conventions does Russia violate in Ukraine?

The most important rule of the Fourth Geneva Convention, as well as of all international humanitarian law, is the protection of civilians in times of war, particularly during the occupation.

The Russian military disregards this rule, deliberately shelling Ukrainian cities and humanitarian corridors, carrying out mass shootings in occupied territories, or forcing Ukrainian citizens to serve in the Russian army. The Russian occupiers arbitrarily kill and torture civilians, rape women and children, shoot doctors, clergy and journalists. There is no water, food, medicine, or electricity in the cities surrounded or occupied by Russia. The invaders are shelling food bases, schools, and hospitals, preventing humanitarian convoys from passing through, depriving entire regions of communication with the rest of the world, and causing a humanitarian crisis.

Such actions constitute a willful violation of the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, as well as the relevant provisions of customary international humanitarian law.

Mariupol Drama Theater with the inscription "CHILDREN"

The attack and seizure of the Chornobyl and Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plants is a gross violation of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism and customary international humanitarian law. In addition, the occupiers are shelling oil terminals and gas pipelines in many regions of Ukraine. Such actions pose an environmental threat to all of humanity.

Another obligation under the Third Geneva Convention is the observance of the rights of prisoners of war. The provisions of this international treaty prohibit physical and psychological torture, as well as inhuman treatment of prisoners, regardless of their past actions. Prisoners have the right to food, water, and contact with their relatives.

Imprisoned servicewomen should be kept separate from men, supervised by female staff, and have access to their special sanitary and medical needs. On numerous occasions, Russian invaders have committed serious crimes against Ukrainian prisoners in violation of war rules and customs. For example, in the recent photos, the released Ukrainian servicewomen can be seen with their heads shaved. According to the Minister for Reintegration, the Russian soldiers forced them to undress and humiliated them, and didn’t allow them to sit down. The Minister says that she was also notified of instances of rape.

According to the Geneva Conventions, health workers must be able to perform their duties, and the wounded and sick must receive medical care. Russian troops have been cynically attacking medical facilities since the start of the full-scale invasion. According to the Ministry of Health, as of April 21, the Russians damaged 347 health care facilities, completely destroyed 36 hospitals, shelled 78 ambulances, and killed or injured dozens of medical workers. These actions violate the Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.

Maternity hospital №2 in Mariupol was destroyed by a Russian airstrike on March 9.

The Hague and other conventions limit methods and means of warfare. Some weapons are especially dangerous because they cause excessive physical damage or have an indiscriminate effect, destroying everything on their way. Russia’s use of cluster bombs, thermobaric “vacuum” bombs, and anti-personnel mines in Ukrainian cities is a violation of The Hague Conventions and customary international humanitarian law.

The use of phosphorus munitions and incendiary bombs by the Russian military in Ukraine violates the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. There are grounds for believing that chemical weapons were used against the defenders of Mariupol and Izyum, which is a gross violation of the rules of war, in particular, that of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

All such facts are widely publicized and will inevitably become an aggravating circumstance in international trials of Russian war criminals.

The 1949 Geneva Conventions and customary international humanitarian law expressly forbid attacks on civilian objects, the placement of military objects near civilians, and attacks on historical monuments.

The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict exists to protect architectural monuments, dozens of which were destroyed by the Russians.
The Russians are violating international humanitarian law by bombing cultural heritage. UNESCO has identified 53 damaged cultural sites in Ukraine and has urged Russia to halt attacks on civilian sites immediately. Meanwhile, Ukrainians are fortifying monuments on their own, concealing cultural heritage artifacts in bomb shelters, and even rescuing cultural property from the flames.

A monument to Taras Shevchenko was shot in the head in Borodyanka. Photo: Serhii Korovayny

Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court

The Rome Statute was adopted in 1998 at a diplomatic conference. The purpose of this treaty is to establish the functions, jurisdiction, and structure of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Rome Statute also defines the following international crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression.

The task of the ICC is to prosecute those responsible for these crimes. Unlike the UN’s International Court of Justice, which establishes the responsibility of states, the ICC prosecutes individuals suspected of committing international crimes. This is the only international court with the authority to convict heads of state.

As of 2022, the Rome Statute has been signed by 137 countries and ratified by 123. Ukraine signed but did not ratify it, despite promising to do so when it signed the Association Agreement with the EU in 2014. As a result, Ukraine is not a state party to the Statute. In 2014, after the occupation of Crimea and parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, Ukraine recognized the jurisdiction of the ICC and granted it the right to investigate all possible international crimes committed on our territory. In 2020, the ICC launched an official investigation.

Russia signed the Rome Statute as well but withdrew from the agreement in 2016. This occurred the day after the ICC ruled that the occupation of Crimea was an international armed conflict. However, exiting the agreement does not prevent the ICC from prosecuting crimes committed by Russian citizens on Ukrainian territory.

For future ICC proceedings against Russian war criminals, the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, the Regional Center for Human Rights, the Center for Civil Liberties, Truth Hounds, the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, and a number of other human rights organizations in Ukraine have repeatedly provided evidence of Russian military crimes committed against Ukraine since 2014. The evidence and testimonies of victims and witnesses about the crimes committed since the start of the large-scale offensive in February 2022 are being actively collected.

These include premeditated murders and injuries to civilians; abductions and forced deportations to Russia and Belarus; forced mobilization, torture, and inhuman treatment; attacks on civilian objects, destruction, and damage to property; holding hostages; attacks on humanitarian aid warehouses, humanitarian missions, and corridors; destruction of food and water and obstruction of humanitarian missions; shelling of settlements; deaths and injuries due to shelling; environmental disaster due to shelling; damage and destruction of historical monuments, hospitals, religious buildings, educational institutions, science, art; looting of captured settlements; use of weapons prohibited by international agreements; rape and other forms of sexual violence; use of civilian objects or people as human shields; illegal detention and imprisonment; use of an unsuitable place for detention; encroachment on human dignity; mining of territories.

The above-mentioned crimes can be classified as crimes against humanity and war crimes. They are subject to the Rome Statute and should be investigated by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a crime of aggression under the ICC and a violation of the UN Charter. Experts disagree on whether Russia committed genocide in Ukraine. Some argue that Russia hasn’t killed enough civilians to meet the “requirements” of a genocide. However, following the publication of the proof of war crimes in the de-occupied areas of the Kyiv region as well as the infamous article of the Russian state agency RIA Novosti, the genocide became more widely discussed; the first statement was made on April 12, by US President Joe Biden. At the same time, the world has yet to see the consequences of Russia’s blockade of Mariupol, where local authorities estimate that the number of civilians killed by Russian troops may exceed 20,000.

On February 28, 2022, the ICC Prosecutor launched an investigation into Russia’s war crimes and crimes against humanity after receiving appeals from 39 countries regarding the situation in Ukraine. The court is investigating the crimes committed by all parties in Ukraine from November 21, 2013, to the present day. According to Christo Grozev, Bellingcat’s leading investigative journalist, the ICC’s investigation of Russia’s top military and political leaders was inevitable.

The Polish Sejm has already declared Putin a war criminal, and the US Senate has passed a resolution calling for an investigation into his crimes.

Manipulating the laws of war

Russian propagandists mention the existence of international conventions and laws of war only when they want to accuse Ukraine of violating them. Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the Russians have started claiming that by publishing videos of the Russian prisoners of war, Ukraine has been violating their rights. Some Western media outlets, as well as reputable human rights organizations, have fallen prey to this propaganda, viewing the publication of photos and videos of Russians who have survived in Ukraine as a violation of the rights of the latter. Indeed, the Geneva Conventions forbid making prisoners an object of public interest. However, under conditions of information blockade in Russia, relatives of prisoners can learn about the fate of their loved ones only from these videos. Such publications allow prisoners to communicate with their relatives as well as debunk Russian propaganda about conscripts’ non-participation in the war against Ukraine.

To discredit Ukraine, Russian propagandists publish staged videos in which the Ukrainian military allegedly bullies Russian prisoners. Ukraine has repeatedly stated that it follows the Geneva Conventions and that such videos are fake.

Is there any real responsibility for violating the laws of war?

In the case of war crimes and crimes against humanity, there is not only individual responsibility but also team responsibility, namely the commander’s responsibility for the crimes of his subordinates. History knows many such examples.

Hermann Goering and Rudolf Hess were convicted during a trial in Nuremberg in 1945-1946.

The Nuremberg trials of 1945-1946 became the first international war crimes tribunal in history. As a result, 19 Nazi criminals were convicted (there were a total of 24 accused, some of whom were later convicted and some were acquitted). Depending on the severity of the crimes, the sentences varied: execution by hanging, life imprisonment, or imprisonment for a term of 10 to 20 years.

From 1946 to 1948, the Tokyo tribunal dealt with Japanese war crimes committed during WWII. 29 major Japanese war criminals have been sentenced to death or imprisonment.

From 1993 to 2017, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia prosecuted and convicted 90 war criminals. There were also tribunals for Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, East Timor, Lebanon, and Kosovo.

Ukraine filed its first complaint against Russia with the United Nations International Court of Justice in 2017. At that time, Ukrainian authorities declared violations of two conventions: the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism (for supporting armed groups in the Donbas, including through the financing and supply of weapons) and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (for the persecution of Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars in the occupied Crimea). Ukraine became the first country in the world to sue under the Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism.

Ukraine filed a second lawsuit with the United Nations International Court of Justice in 2022, alleging a violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. On March 16, 2022, the UN International Court of Justice in The Hague ordered Russia to immediately stop the invasion and not to resort to further hostilities on the territory of Ukraine. Russia dismissed this decision.

Adolf Eichmann, SS-Obersturmbannführer, sentenced to death for his war crimes, Jerusalem, April 1961.

The main shortcoming of international courts is their duration. Trails can take years to complete. Often, the accused do not live long enough to hear their verdicts. However, international trials of war criminals are of great historical importance, as they shed light on historical events and the role of high-ranking officials in these crimes.

Experts envision various scenarios for Russia’s future trial. One of them is the establishment of an international court through an international agreement between the Ukrainian government and the United Nations, as was done in Cambodia and Sierra Leone. Another option is for several states to agree to create a separate special tribunal.

Whatever court model is chosen, we hope that Russian war criminals from the top political and military leadership will live to see their sentences and bear full responsibility for their actions.

The material is prepared by

Founder of Ukraїner:

Bogdan Logvynenko


Maksym Sytnikov


Yevgeniya Sapozhnykova


Anastasiia Sierikova

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Yurii Stefanyak

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Kateryna Minkina


Sofia Havryliuk

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