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In 2014, Ukraine was subjected to armed aggression by the Russian Federation and involuntarily became a party to the ongoing international armed conflict. Since the beginning of the occupation of the Crimean Peninsula, the international armed conflict, or rather the Russian-Ukrainian war, has automatically fallen under the regulation of international humanitarian law.
International humanitarian law (IHL), or the law of war, the law of armed conflict, is a branch of public international law that protects victims of war and restricts the means and methods of warfare. Thus, IHL is a set of rules which seek, for humanitarian reasons, to limit the effects of armed conflict.
Due to the fact that the law of war consists of two parts, to protect victims of armed conflict and to limit the means and methods of armed actions, it is notionally codified into Geneva law (protection of civilians, prisoners of war, etc.) and Hague law (restriction of the means and methods of warfare and ways to avoid unnecessary suffering and minimize targets to the point of purely military necessity).
Occupying the part of the sovereign territory of Ukraine, the Crimean Peninsula, the aggressor must comply with the prohibitions imposed by IHL, especially the rules of Geneva law, including Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 12 August 1949. Section III (Occupied Territories) of Part III (Status and Treatment of Protected Persons) of this Convention imposes certain obligations on the Occupying Power, the Russian Federation, non-compliance with which is a violation or gross violation of international humanitarian law. In turn, gross violation of IHL is a war crime.
However, the Russian Federation, as an Occupying Power, from the beginning of the occupation until today, has grossly violated many provisions of Geneva law, including willful killing; torture or inhuman treatment; unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement; compelling a protected person to serve in the forces of a hostile Power; willfully depriving a protected person of the rights of fair and regular trial; extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly.
It is clear that the law enforcement agencies of Ukraine have not been able to bring to justice the perpetrators of the Russian Federation for their hiding in the territory of the aggressor State or in the occupied territory of Ukraine, the Crimean Peninsula. In addition, those who have issued orders to commit international crimes belong to the highest state leadership of the Russian Federation and enjoy personal immunity from foreign criminal jurisdiction.
However, the International Criminal Court (ICC), governed by the Rome Statute, is not limited by any immunity from criminal liability and has jurisdiction to prosecute any person responsible for genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity or crime of aggression.
Ukraine has not ratified the Rome Statute yet, but recognized the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, which allows the ICC Prosecutor’s Office to investigate (and to prosecute by the International Criminal Court) international crimes in Ukraine, including crimes committed on its sovereign but occupied territories.
In order to convince the ICC Prosecutor’s Office that the aggressor State has committed grave violations of international law – war crimes and crimes against humanity on the occupied territories, Ukrainian human rights organizations, together with law enforcement agencies, have been recording, systematizing and analyzing international crimes in the framework of relevant criminal proceedings, and have been submitting high-quality communications to the ICC Prosecutor’s Office.
Thus, in the period 2016-2021, the Prosecutor’s Office of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol together with human rights NGOs, submitted to the International Criminal Court twelve communications on both war crimes and crimes against humanity, including: extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly; mass internment of Crimean prisoners, citizens of Ukraine, to places of imprisonment in the territory of the Russian Federation to serve their sentences; forced transfer of Crimean residents to mainland Ukraine; compelling Crimean residences to serve in the armed forces of the Russian Federation, criminal prosecution for refusing to perform military service; propaganda and promotion of military service among children; use of civilians as “human shields” during the active phase of the occupation of the Crimean peninsula; persecution of journalists by the Russian Federation in the occupied territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, etc.
The scale of the crimes is staggering, and as the armed conflict continues, the offenses take place almost daily. It is important to note that all the above-mentioned crimes are united by one criminal plan i.e. by using a wide range of forms of persecution, to expel all Ukrainians from the peninsula: the Ukrainian Church, Ukrainian language, Ukrainian culture and Ukrainians themselves. Those who remain are “tied” to the Occupying Power by imposed citizenship and service in the Russian armed forces. The Occupying Power is also trying to change the demographic structure of the peninsula by deporting and expelling Ukrainians and colonizing Crimea by Russian citizens.
In this sense, it is important to pay attention to the latest communication on the responsibility of Russian officials for the extensive appropriation and destruction of Ukraine’s cultural heritage sites in Crimea, submitted by the Prosecutor General’s Office in close cooperation with human rights NGOs, who are directly investigating the conflict and unlawful activity of the Russian Federation in Crimea.
The submission was filed to the ICC in August 2020.
Prior to the occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, on the Crimean peninsula, as of 2014, there were 12,612 sites of national and local importance under the protection of the state of Ukraine. As of February 2014, in Crimea, there were more than 30 museums and galleries, where about 1 million 200 thousand exhibits of the state part of the Museum Fund of Ukraine were exhibited, and about 773 libraries were working.
The communication proves that the policy of the Occupying Power regarding the Ukraine’s cultural heritage in Crimea has several components:
- war crimes in the form of extensive appropriation and destruction of cultural values;
- criminal negligence in the process of so-called “restoration” of cultural objects;
- conducting unlawful archeological excavations, in particular, excavations of burial sites and mounds;
- movement of cultural property from the occupied territory, not justified by military necessity.
In all these cases, there is significant damage to protected cultural sites, which threatens their preservation.
The authors of the communication proved that extensive appropriation and destruction of cultural heritage in the occupied territories of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol have clear signs of war crimes and falls under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.
This means that these crimes have no statute of limitations and that senior governmental officials of the Russian Federation guilty of them do not enjoy immunity from international criminal jurisdiction.
The overall purpose of this communication, like the previous, is to convince the ICC Prosecutor’s Office of the need for a full-fledged investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity and to bring the perpetrators to justice.
The ICC Prosecutor’s Office had carefully examined the submissions and used the information received in its annual Reports on Preliminary Investigation.
Unlawful and forced transfer of persons, violation of environmental norms, destruction of cultural heritage, persecution on political and religious grounds, compelling to serve in the armed forces of the Occupying Power, military propaganda among children, treacherous killings, use of “human shields”, enforced disappearances and torture have already been recognized.
Finally, Ukraine received a long-awaited decision from the International Criminal Court to complete a preliminary investigation. The ICC Prosecutor’s Office acknowledged signs of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the armed conflict and is currently considering the possibility of opening a full-fledged investigation.
In our opinion, the International Criminal Court can really become an effective international mechanism for bringing to justice those responsible for crimes against Ukraine’s cultural heritage in Crimea, including senior governmental officials of the Russian Federation.
Ukraine should focus its efforts on gathering relevant evidence of the criminal activities of the Occupying Power in Crimea, continue to investigate at the national level all facts of destructive activities of the Russian Federation in Crimea, and provide the ICC Prosecutor’s Office with all relevant information.
This communication on the responsibility of the governmental officials of the Russian Federation for extensive appropriation and destruction of Ukraine’s cultural heritage sites in Crimea, which we examined in this article, is a good example of combining the efforts of Ukrainian civil society and the law enforcement agencies to effectively counter Russian aggression.
expert on international humanitarian law,
written specially for “Voice of Crimea. Culture”
 Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (IV Geneva Convention), 1949. Date of entry into force for Ukraine – 03.01.1955
 The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court is a kind of analogue of the Criminal and Criminal Procedure Codes.https://www.icc-cpi.int/resource-library/documents/rs-eng.pdf
The term “temporary occupation” is not correct, because “occupation” is a priori a temporary state. Occupation – the temporary capture of part or all of one state by the armed forces of another state. (Academic Glossary) http://sum.in.ua/s/okupacija
 We are talking about the NGOs “Regional Center for Human Rights”, “Euromaidan-Crimea” and “Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union”
Матеріал підготовлено в рамках проекту “Інформаційна платформа “Голос Криму. Культура” – про Крим чесно, якісно, актуально” за підтримки Фонду розвитку ЗМІ Посольства США в Україні. Погляди авторів не обов’язково збігаються з офіційною позицією уряду США. / Implemented within the project “Information Platform” Voice of Crimea. Culture “- about Crimea honestly, qualitatively, actually” with the support of the Media Development Fund of the US Embassy in Ukraine. The views of the authors do not necessarily reflect the official position of the US government.