Maksimas Milta: International Accountability Is the Way to Defeat Russia

2024-06-07 | Expert publications, Geopolitical analysis

Maksimas Milta is Ukraine country director at The Reckoning Project and a German Marshall Fund ReThink.CEE fellow.

NGOs are showing how the meticulous collection of evidence of war crimes and targeted judicial efforts can bring the Russian perpetrators to justice for their actions in Ukraine sooner rather than later.

At public gatherings in Kyiv, I often hear that the best way to ensure Russia’s accountability and to bring the Kremlin to justice is by the use of HIMARS rocket launchers and Patriot anti-missile systems. Despite the unquestionable and utter need of ensuring steady military aid to Ukraine to protect those at risk – as there can be no human rights without humans – enforcing global justice for Russia’s crimes is crucial to prevent recurrence of its aggression. International accountability is the fabric that helps to impose diplomatic isolation, but most importantly, it serves as a shield against the Kremlin’s lies-driven attempts to legitimize its war, and its conduct during its war against Ukraine.

It might look counterintuitive at first, but the effect of the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrants [see box] on the Kremlin is comparable to Ukraine’s liberation of the illegally occupied territories. In a 2023 paper, scholars Georgy Egorov and Konstantin Sonin provide a compelling argument on the degenerative autocracy model as an explanation of the rationale behind Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Here, unrestricted impunity stands at the core of President Vladimir Putin’s ever-consolidating authority and of his kleptocratic system of rule. Every arrest warrant or threat thereof, against Putin, his apparatchiks, and military commanders shrinks the space of impunity that they enjoy.

In this regard, efforts toward global justice are neither futile nor reserved for government actors alone. In fact, civil society stands at the forefront of ensuring it.  And the ICC is not the only forum, but one of several places to seek accountability for Russia’s war and associated crimes against Ukraine.

Despite the largely dysfunctional nature of today’s United Nations, the historical records of this war are kept within the institution and can act as a vital source for accountability and countering propaganda purposes. Filing submissions to international treaty bodies and mechanisms, such as the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Universal Periodic Review, or the Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights is what elevates the evidence gathered by NGOs to the level of recognition by the UN and thus international applicability. The same applies to the Moscow Mechanism of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which allows for the creation of short-term fact-finding missions to address human rights concerns.

But to take advantage of the opportunities for justice that these bodies present, the highest standards of documentation and archiving of testimonies of war crimes must be ensured.

My organization, The Reckoning Project, established in 2022, bridges the power of journalistic storytelling and legal standards-adhering evidence collection with the power of advancing justice in official courtrooms and in the court of public opinion. Despite our organization’s young age and tiny size, we have collected over 300 individual testimonies of Russia’s torture against Ukrainian civilians and over 100 witness testimonies of its deportation of children from Ukraine. Our team of 13 researchers, based in Ukraine, have  a variety of backgrounds – some come from human rights NGOs, others have journalism experience – and on average they have worked in the field for between seven and 10 years. The critical element of our model of operations is the methodology of documentation that does not tolerate either retraumatization of victims or disruption of the integrity of the evidence.

Currently, the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine reports that over 132,000 cases involving war crimes have been recorded since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion. No amount of human capacity could deal with that backlog, especially in a country at war. This is why, in April 2024, The Reckoning Project filed a criminal complaint in Argentina for Russia’s crimes in Ukraine – the first universal jurisdiction-based criminal complaint in the Global South. Universal jurisdiction in this case means prosecutors can pursue cases for war crimes and crimes against humanity in other countries unconnected to the crimes. The complaint is also the first of its kind filed outside of Europe and the United States.

The survivor in this case says the Russian military applied electric shocks to torture him over the course of six weeks in a detention center in southern Ukraine. We managed to identify some of the perpetrators and to include them in the criminal complaint filed in the Federal Court of Buenos Aires. The selection of the jurisdiction was not random. Besides the need to engage professionals, including prosecutors of the Global South, fact-driven criminal investigations and litigations are the best way to counter the Kremlin’s persistent disinformation campaigns in Latin America. Lastly, Argentina has the tragic experience of military junta rule and expertise in investigating crimes of torture, a knowledge base crucial to advance an unbiased and holistic process.

The Reckoning Project is still awaiting to hear whether the Argentine authorities will open the investigation, hopefully in the next month or two. Yet the inspirational examples of applying universal jurisdiction in the renowned Al-Khatib trial in Germany and Hamid Nouri trial in Sweden exemplify that it is an operational and important mechanism of international law that can be used to advance international accountability – also by NGOs, such as the 5am coalition, which brings together 38 Ukrainian and international groups that document Russia’s crimes and advocate justice.

The Reckoning Project is driven by the imperative that justice delayed is justice denied. Providing greater support to and cooperation with the accountability-focused NGOs is a smart way for the international community to complement evidence collection and to advance international accountability for Russia’s war against Ukraine.

While the “bazooka” of the ICC’s indictments is a tool of the highest sophistication, a thousand cuts done by NGOs via international jurisdictions and treaty bodies will further crack apart the Kremlin’s impunity.

Originally published here.