Appearing on CNN last week with Christiane Amanpour, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko urged his host to refer to anti-government fighters in the Donbas as “terrorists” instead of “separatists,” the label commonly applied to pro-Moscow fighters in the Donbas. “Please, Christiane, don’t name these separatists. There is [sic] no separatists there. They are terrorists, they are killing innocent people, and I think that their attempt to destroy the evidence were useless,” Poroshenko said.
The Ukrainian government has consistently referred to the insurgents in the Donbas as terrorists, arguing that the fighters’ foreign support, preponderance of non-Ukrainians in its ranks, and use of lethal violence against armed and unarmed opponents justifies the “terrorist” label. President Poroshenko explicitly drew parallels between the MH17 tragedy and the September 11 attacks in New York, saying that he doesn’t “see any difference between the tragedy of Lockerbie, the tragedy of 9/11, and the tragedy of Grabovo in the Ukrainian sky.” The Ukrainian government has asked the international community to consider the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) terrorist organizations. Several Western politicians have also backed the idea, including United States Senators Dianne Feinstein and Robert Menendez, who recently wrote a letter to President Obama urging that DNR and LNR earn the designation “foreign terrorist organizations” (FTOs) under American law.
Are the Donbas insurgents actually terrorists? It depends on who you ask. There is no internationally agreed upon definition of terrorism. Instead, individual states have taken it upon themselves to define terrorism and to assign punishments for terrorists and those who materially support terrorist groups. Furthermore, Russia’s status as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council with veto power precludes the possibility of the international organization designating the fighters as terrorists.
The question of whether international law should have a comprehensive definition of terrorism shouldn’t obfuscate the disturbing reports of human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, and other serious crimes committed by insurgent groups in eastern Ukraine. The United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, which just published its latest report on the situation in Ukraine, has recorded many instances of serious human rights violations by the LNR and DNR. The UN mission verified the existence of execution orders signed by insurgent military leader Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, and documented numerous instances of abduction and intimidation by insurgent groups. Speaking at a press conference in Kyiv, the Head of the UN mission Armen Harutyunyan stated that pro-Russian groups have used local civilians as human shields. The “armed groups are placing themselves among populated zones, and this is increasing the number of civilian casualties,” Harutyunyan said.
Ukraine’s supporters in the international community, especially the United States and European Union, can demonstrate solidarity by designating the separatist groups in Eastern Ukraine as foreign terrorist organizations under their own laws. The United States and most EU countries roughly define international terrorism as violent actions against human life that are intended to coerce a civilian population and affect the policies of a sovereign state. According to the United States State Department, for example, an FTO must be a foreign organization, the organization must engage in terrorism as defined by American law, and the organization’s activity must threaten U.S. interests or citizens.
Similarly, the British intelligence agency MI5 defines terrorist organizations as those which use violence “designed to influence the government or an international governmental organization or to intimidate the public, or a section of the public” for the purposes of “advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause.” Following the downing of MH17 which killed many EU citizens and one American [one Hollander had also US citizenship – UCMC], and as evidence mounts of insurgent involvement in the attack, these organizations now threaten not only the lives of Ukrainians, but also of foreign nationals.
Designating the DNR and LNR as foreign terrorist organizations is not a solution in and of itself. It won’t change the calculus of the Kremlin, nor will it significantly curtail the financing of the insurgent groups from Russia. Instead, designating the organizations as FTOs will be seen as an act of solidarity with Ukraine as a sovereign state and with Ukrainian citizens who have been subjected to abuse from Russian-backed fighters, and will serve as another small step to increasingly pressure Russia to act in a manner consistent with international norms of behavior.
This designation would acknowledge the reality that a Kremlin-supported war in the heart of Europe is not just a Ukrainian problem, but a European and international one, a fact that was made so painfully clear after the MH17 tragedy.
Legal obstacles aside, it should be obvious to any layperson that the groups in question engage in a policy of what is commonly referred to as terrorism. It’s time for the EU and US, as well as other foreign nations, to stand up and be counted against violent separatism and designate Russian-backed insurgents as terrorists.
By Chris Dunnett for Ukraine Crisis Media Center