Ukraine and Russia repeatedly clashed during hearings this week over whether the United Nations’ highest court has jurisdiction to hear a complaint that Moscow abused the 1948 Genocide Convention to justify its invasion of Ukraine last year.
Kyiv is asking the court to order Russia to halt its attacks, even though it is unlikely Moscow would comply.
Ukraine brought its complaint to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the United Nations’ highest legal body, shortly after the invasion. The complaint said that Russia had falsely accused the Ukrainian government of carrying out a genocide against Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine and then had used the accusation as the pretext for launching its full-scale invasion in February 2022.
Over five days of hearings that ended on Wednesday, delegates for Ukraine said there had been no acts of genocide against its citizens before the invasion and accused Russia of using disinformation and of twisting the Genocide Convention’s meaning. They asked the court, which has the mandate to deal with legal disputes between nations, to use its jurisdiction to help end the “illegal war.” The hearings were attended by international lawyers and diplomats.
It was Ukraine’s second attempt to seek the court’s help. The court’s judges had already issued an order to Russia to stop its military action in March 2022. Moscow snubbed the court, declining to attend those hearings and flouting the court order.
This time, Russia sent a large delegation. Some diplomats said Moscow’s presence reflected a perceived legal threat and a political calculation as its diplomats campaign to rejoin the United Nations Human Rights Council next month. The council expelled Russia last year after the invasion.
Addressing the bench of 16 judges in the case, lawyers for Russia urged the court to drop the complaint. They said Ukraine’s arguments were “hopelessly flawed” and that Russia had based its actions in Ukraine not on genocide but on its right to self-defense, as defined by the United Nations Charter. There was no dispute over genocide, the Russian side said, so there was no case.
Russia’s arguments are not likely to prevail, international lawyers said, in good part because of statements made by President Vladimir V. Putin and senior Russian officials.
For instance, lawyers for Ukraine repeatedly referred to a televised speech by Mr. Putin on Feb. 24, 2022, the day of the invasion, in which he announced “a special military operation” in eastern parts of Ukraine. The purpose of the military operation, Mr. Putin said, was “to protect people who have been subjected to abuse and genocide by the Kyiv regime for eight years.”
Russian lawyers brushed aside Mr. Putin’s words as a political speech, which they argued was not the same as invoking the Genocide Convention.
Although the hearings revolved around jurisdiction only, lawyers and diplomats saw them as important because the outcome could impact the intentions of a group of countries to create a special international tribunal for Russian aggression and war crimes in Ukraine. Exceptionally, 32 governments presented submissions siding with Ukraine’s argument. The group included most European Union countries, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
It may take several months, or more, for the judges to decide if they can proceed with the case.
Harold Koh, a law professor at Yale University who is on Ukraine’s legal team, urged the judges to act quickly. “The jurisdictional questions before you are neither close, nor are they difficult,” he told the court. “And while you deliberate, the world awaits a speedy hearing on the merits.”