Ukraine and Russia face off in court over Kremlin's 'genocide' claims

The conflict in Ukraine entered a courtroom in The Hague on Monday as Kyiv and its allies seek a verdict that Russia’s invasion was based on spurious claims of genocide.

Lawyers for Russia and Ukraine will go head-to-head in five days of hearings at the International Court of Justice to decide whether the case can proceed despite Moscow’s objections.

Representatives from more than 30 countries including Britain, France and Germany will address the court after judges handed Ukraine a preliminary win by allowing allies to intervene.

Ukraine is asking for a declaration that the February 2022 invasion was based on a “false claim”, namely that Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine were the victims of “genocide”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin used the term in his address announcing the invasion, saying the “purpose of this operation is to protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide” by Ukraine.

Kyiv says this claim has “no factual basis” and wants judges to find that Russia “cannot lawfully take any action”, such as attacking Ukraine or prising away eastern territory, based on the genocide narrative.

Russia, which has also tried to justify its invasion under the UN Charter by claiming self-defence against a Nato-backed country on its borders, is moving to have the case thrown out. Judges will have to decide on that issue this month before turning to the merits of the argument at a later date.

ukraine and russia face off in court over kremlin's 'genocide' claims

Russia claimed it invaded Ukraine in February 2022 to protect people from ‘genocide’ near its borders. AFP

Beginning three hours of submissions on Monday, Russian representative Gennady Kuzmin said the case fell outside the scope of the 1948 Genocide Convention and therefore the court’s jurisdiction.

“Ukraine is not accusing Russia of committing genocide,” he told the court. “Ukraine is also not accusing Russia of failing to prevent or punish genocide. On the contrary, Ukraine insists no genocide has occurred.

“Ukraine seems to claim that the Genocide Convention provides some kind of right to use force, which Russia allegedly abused. But the convention of course provides no such right, nor has Russia ever claimed it does.”

Mr Kuzmin repeated Kremlin talking points before the court by claiming a “Russophobic, neo-Nazi regime” in Ukraine had “promoted hatred against ethnic Russians”.

He said the comments about genocide by Mr Putin and other senior Russian officials were “unsurprising” in light of Ukraine’s alleged actions.

Ukraine will reply on Tuesday before Germany begins the interventions by 32 nations on Wednesday. Both warring countries will have an opportunity for a second round of legal arguments next week.

Judges sided with Ukraine in a provisional ruling in March last year that said Russia should “immediately suspend” its invasion but the full case will take much longer to decide.

ukraine and russia face off in court over kremlin's 'genocide' claims

Russian President Vladimir Putin made claims of genocide when he announced the invasion of Ukraine. AFP

Verdicts by the court are legally binding but it has limited power to enforce its rulings and Russia has a veto on the UN Security Council, which could authorise action. However, a ruling could affect future claims of reparations.

Some western politicians including US President Joe Biden have flipped the accusation around by suggesting Russia is committing genocide against Ukrainians.

The International Criminal Court, also based in the capital of the Netherlands, has issued an arrest warrant for Mr Putin over the alleged deportation of children to Russia from occupied parts of Ukraine.

The legal wrangling comes as Kyiv’s armed forces try to regain territory in a counter-offensive that is now more than 100 days old. Ukraine reported further incremental gains on Monday.

It also said Ukrainian air defence systems had brought down a swarm of attack drones and nearly 20 cruise missiles in Russia’s latest aerial barrage. Moscow’s attacks on civilian infrastructure have been described as war crimes.

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