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Russia refuses to attend UN hearing on Ukraine

March 7, 2022

Ukraine had requested that the UN's top court order Russia to stop its invasion. Kyiv sought the injunction against Russia under the UN Genocide Convention.

Picture of ICJ flag in The Hague, The Netherlands
Ukraine wants the ICJ to end Russia's aggression. That's not likely, yet it gives Kyiv a forum to voice grievancesImage: Vincent Isore/IP3press/imago images

The United Nations International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, Netherlands, on Monday heard arguments from Ukraine asking the court to halt Russia's invasion of the country, which is now in its 12th day.

The UN's highest court closed the hearing on Monday afternoon, a day earlier than planned, after Russia boycotted the proceedings.

"The fact that Russian seats are empty speaks loudly," said the Ukrainian representative, Anton Korynevych. "They are not here in this court of law. They are on a battlefield waging aggressive war against my country.''

The president of the court, US judge Joan E. Donoghue, said Russian Ambassador to the Netherlands Alexander Shulgin told judges that "his government did not intend to participate in the oral proceedings." Before the hearing got underway Donoghue had requested Moscow act, "in such a way as will enable any order the Court may make on the request for provisional measures to have its appropriate effects."

Donoghue said judges on the court would reach a decision "as soon as possible."

Russia misappropriating the term genocide

Ukraine is seeking an urgent injunction calling on Russia to halt its attack. Its case hinges in large part around Kyiv saying the Kremlin has misused the word "genocide" when trying to justify its invasion. Both Russia and Ukraine are signatories to the 1948 UN Genocide Convention treaty, which allows plaintiffs to take such disputes to the court. Moscow has claimed that Ukraine was committing genocide against the Russian minority in the east of the country.

"Ukraine comes to this court because of a grotesque lie and to seek protection from the devastating consequences of that lie. The lie is the Russian Federation's claim of genocide in Ukraine. The consequences are unprovoked aggression, cities under siege, civilians under fire, humanitarian catastrophe and refugees fleeing for their lives," argued David Zionts, a lawyer representing Ukraine.

Moreover, Kyiv's representatives said, "Ukraine emphatically denies that any such genocide has occurred, and that the Russian Federation has any lawful basis to take action in and against Ukraine for the purpose of preventing and punishing genocide."

Ukrainian representative Anton Korynevych told judges, "Russia must be stopped and the court has a role to play in stopping it."

A leading body of genocide scholars said Russia was misappropriating the term genocide to describe the treatment of Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine.

The president of International Association of Genocide Scholars, Melanie O'Brien, told the Reuters news agency: "There is absolutely no evidence that there is genocide going on in Ukraine."

'Maximum pressure on Russia'

With any case brought to the International Court of Justice, both plaintiff and defendant states have to recognize the jurisdiction of the court for rulings to be binding.

Russia — and also the US — have never generally recognized the UN court, but instead do so only on a case-by-case basis.

"It's part of, I think, an overall diplomatic strategy to try to put maximum pressure on Russia," Terry Gill, professor of military law at the University of Amsterdam, told news agency The Associated Press. 

Speaking of the prospects of the court ending the conflict, Gill said, "I think the chance of that happening is zero." 

Despite the dim prospects of legal success, the case, nevertheless, gives Ukraine yet another forum in which to make its public case against Russia

During Mondays proceedings, lawyer Jonathan Gimblett pleaded the urgency of the case, saying Moscow's "military aggression could have resulted in a new nuclear catastrophe affecting not only Ukraine or Russia, but potentially a vast surrounding area."

"Today [Russia] is resorting to tactics reminiscent of medieval siege warfare, encircling cities, cutting off escape routes and pounding the civilian population with heavy ordnance,'' he added.

Glacial resolution of international disputes at the ICJ

Beyond the ICJ, the International Criminal Court (ICC) is also investigating whether Russian President Vladimir Putin or other leading figures in the Kremlin are responsible for war crimes or crimes against humanity in Ukraine.

Unlike the ICJ, which deals with cases involving states, the ICC is responsible for cases against individuals. Neither Ukraine nor Russia are fully signed up to the ICC, again meaning the step could prove largely symbolic.

As Monday's ICJ hearing came to a close, the Ukrainian representative, Oksana Zolotaryova, stressed to the judges the high stakes for Ukraine in this war.

"As I am speaking, the Russian Federation continues its relentless assaults on our cities, on our towns, on our villages, on our people," she said. "We don't know yet the true number of Ukrainians that Russia has murdered in the past 11 days. We can only guess how many more will be murdered in the next 11 days if this senseless aggression does not stop.''

Despite the clear sense of urgency that Ukraine outlined on Monday, cases before the ICJ typically take years to resolve. Currently, for instance, the court is still reviewing the ruling Ukraine is seeking related to Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Even more hasty injunctions, such as Ukraine's current main request, tend to take weeks rather than days to deliberate.

js,fh/msh (AP, Reuters)