Does the Annexation of Crimea Challenge the Geneva Convention?

In 1949 the International Committee of the Red Cross in conjunction with the international community established the Geneva Convention which defined international humanitarian law in the prosecution of war. This Convention was written in response to the atrocities of the World War II in order to establish the legal and moral boundaries of modern warfare. It was ratified by 195 countries including the then Soviet Union.

The Convention was written at a time when the armies of Communist Russia faced off against the NATO allies in the Cold War and where conventional forces were backed by substantial nuclear arsenals. Terrorism was in its infancy and seen more as a tactic than a strategy.

Since then however the whole nature of war has changed out of all proportion and as a result the Geneva Convention has been modified seventy four times to reflect the changing patterns of war.

The Russian invasion of Crimea and its subsequent annexation did more than breach the Geneva Convention, it was specifically designed to bypass it altogether. It was a deliberate and premeditated act of international defiance and therefore an affront to the entire world community.

Russia had the right under the Sevastopol port agreement to house 25,000 troops within the prescribed area of the port and was required to obtain permission from the Ukrainian government for all troop movements. This agreement was ignored.

Russia invaded Ukrainian sovereign territory in Crimea using specialised troops who had been deliberately dressed in uniforms without clear markings of who they were and whom they represented. Russia consistently denied that they were their troops with President Putin blatantly insisting that they were “…local partisans who had bought their clothes and weapons in Crimean shops…”

The status of these unmarked and disowned troops is not clearly defined under the Geneva Convention making it extremely difficult for the Ukrainian military to respond within any form of international law. Had they assumed that these were terrorists or partisans and defended their country then Russia could easily have used this as an excuse for a full scale invasion of Ukraine, which many believe was their intent.

These “local partisans” supported a coup d’etat in which the democratic government was overthrown and an illegitimate, pro-Moscow regime installed. Furthermore they supported the regime in the organisation an internationally rejected sham referendum to seek to justify their coup and continue to this day to support an illegal regime as it violates international law and the rights of minority populations, again clearly in breach of the Geneva Convention which defines the rules for the treatment of all non-combatants.

The “local partisans” surrounded all Ukrainian military facilities with heavily armed troops preventing the free movement of Ukrainian forces therefore despite war not being declared they held the Ukrainian forces as “prisoners of war”. The incident at the Belbeck Air Force base is a clear illustration of their imprisonment when unarmed Ukrainian personal sought to go about their duties they were surrounded by soldiers with machine guns and ordered back to their barracks. As a result these forces were entitled to all the protection of the Geneva Convention and attention by the International Red Cross.

…prisoners of war are protected against any act of violence, as well as against intimidation, insults, and public curiosity. International humanitarian law also defines minimum conditions of detention covering such issues as accommodation, food, clothing, hygiene and medical care…

This was denied. The Ukrainian military were subject to threats and psychological abuse, their families were threatened, they were denied food and provisions and they were under constant fear of attack from their captors using heavy weapons.

Under the Convention opposing forces are required to have open lines of communication through the Red Cross to ensure that casualties and POW’s are treated in accordance with international law. The Crimean regime categorically refused to honour this commitment making it impossible for the Ukrainian authorities to arrange for the systematic withdrawal of their forces.

In addition despite Crimea being annexed into the Russian Federation the Russian military have not lived up to their obligations to protect their prisoners of war and as a result anarchical thugs bearing military weapons have seized naval ships and installations using hand grenades and machine guns subjecting the crews to abuse. A truce was agreed between the military commands in Kyiv and Moscow giving credence to the claim that the “local partisans” were in fact Russian soldiers but this too was ignored by the regime which now appears to be acting outside of Moscow’s command and in clear violation of international law.

Under the Convention these thugs are more likely to be defined as terrorists, therefore it can be concluded that the Russian Federation in not preventing their actions whilst at the same time supporting the regime is now condoning terrorist activity despite President Putin’s claims of fighting international terrorism.

Clearly the international community cannot simply sit by and allow a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and a signatory to the Geneva Convention to ride roughshod over international law in such a calculating and premeditated way. Since 1949 those that flout international law have invariably faced justice. Whilst in this case the world has thankfully not had to bear witness to mass murder the intent to flout international law would appear to be deliberate therefore perhaps it is time for the International Criminal Court in the Hague to open an investigation into just what has happened in Crimea and who is to be held accountable.

Martin Nunn, Foley & Nunn, Kyiv