Solidarity Episode 20March 19, 2022

20. Will Russia be held accountable for its war on Ukraine?

Hosted by Akwe Amosu
Produced by Peter Coccoma

After the initial shock of Russia’s invasion, Ukrainians mobilized to defend their country in the best ways they could: some enlisting in the armed forces, others assisting with evacuations and still more by pulling out their phones to document the violence. Human rights workers have been on the frontline of these civilian documentation efforts, and in the first 25 days of war, they have recorded evidence of Russian missiles hitting multiple civilian targets, including hospitals, residential buildings, schools and evacuation convoys. Local and digital activists have rushed to collect visual evidence of these military actions before it is lost or erased, especially because the targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure violates international humanitarian law. Many of these volunteers hope is that the documentation will eventually feed into an international justice mechanism designed to hold Russia accountable for unlawful military actions.  But is that hope realistic?  Cases at the International Criminal Court and special tribunals progress painfully slowly and are often opaque, their technical language and arcane processes leaving victims and populations confused and disappointed.  Three weeks into Russia’s war of aggression, Roman Romanov, Human Rights and Justice Program Director at the International Renaissance Foundation in Kiev, Ukraine, reflects on why accountability for Russia is critical and calls for new thinking and better results.

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The Interview

‘We cannot wait generations for justice to be done’

Justice and rights expert Roman Romanov is proud of the energy and spirit Ukrainians have shown in the face of Russian aggression. Vladimir Putin thought he would be able to exploit divisions in the society, he says, but it didn’t work: “the unity is enormous.”  


Akwe Amosu: Hello and welcome to Strength and Solidarity.  I’m Akwe Amosu with Episode 20 of our podcast – in which we take a regular dive into human rights work around the world to see how activists are using or adapting their tools and their tactics. And we’re devoting this show to Ukraine and questions of justice and accountability.


AA: Much human rights work relies on having minimum space to operate – a functioning courts system for litigation, officials who are available to be lobbied, or streets that are safe enough for protest.  But when a war starts, literally everything is disrupted. So what kind of pivot does the human rights worker have to make? Whatever else is on their list, it will likely include efforts to record what’s happening – to document human rights abuse or breaches of the Geneva conventions, in order  – sooner or later – to hold the perpetrators accountable.  And with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that’s certainly happening. Local and digital activists are collecting evidence; and international justice actors are applying their tools.  The International Court of Justice at the Hague has ruled that the Russian justification for war is baseless and ordered Moscow to stop fighting.  Nearly 40 countries have referred Russia’s actions in Ukraine to the International Criminal Court and its chief prosecutor has opened new investigations. And a group of international legal scholars are advocating the creation of a special tribunal to focus on Russia’s “aggression” – a specific crime in international law. So the determination to hold Russia accountable using the international justice framework is clear. But how well can that framework meet the moment?   The times where international justice has brought satisfaction to victims are few, and instances of disappointment out-number the successes.  If timely trial and conviction are the test, is this form of accountability worthwhile? Or are there other good reasons for pursuing it? I decided to put those questions to someone for whom they are very topical – Roman Romanov is the Human Rights and Justice Program Director at the International Renaissance Foundation in Kiev, Ukraine…  I spoke to him Thursday March 17 at a location in the country’s western region

AA: Welcome Roman.

Roman Romanov: Hello.

AA: So I just want to start by expressing solidarity with you and with your fellow citizens. This is a terrible moment. It’s, it’s very, very painful to see what’s happening to your country. Can I ask you how these past three weeks have been, are you safe and your family?

RR: Thanks for the words of solidarity, they are important indeed in that moment. Um, so to the extent it’s possible, uh, I feel quite safely. So I moved from my home city Kiev to the Western part of Ukraine. Unfortunately from time to time, we have to go to shelters because like the air strikes are happening throughout the country. So no-one is safe in Ukraine now. Uh, but you know, we still continue working and trying to do our best actually to help the people of Ukraine, to keep working and to protect the country from this terrible aggression. After the collapse of Soviet Union, Russia and Ukraine moved, you know, to some extent, the opposite directions. So in Russia, they consolidated the authoritarian power and the authorities took control of different spheres of public life. In Ukraine it’s absolutely opposite. Actually, we had two revolutions for this period of time. We had growth – the civil society movement in Ukraine, and then this, actually it’s just a new wave of aggression to, to give you understanding that the aggression happened eight years ago. It started after the Maidan Revolution. Now it’s just a full-scale invasion and I would say that there is enormous consolidation inside the Ukrainian society. 

AA: So I want to come on in a minute to hear how you are thinking about accountability and justice, because of this violence being perpetrated. But before that, it would be good to have a sense of what that work is that you are still trying to do. What impact has this aggression had on the human rights field that you are a part of? Has the work totally been disrupted?

 RR:  Um, no, like in all parts of Ukraine, people are joining the territorial defense forces to protect their communities from Russian aggression. Uh, then, there are enormous efforts to mobilize the volunteer movements inside Ukraine. And of course hundreds of thousands of people are joining the Ukrainian military. Uh, the civil society groups are trying not to lose this nature of being active in this society and not only to wait for orders, but we are trying to build the networks and keep these networks functional as much as possible. So for many people here – I think the vast majority – it’s a people’s war.

AA: And that has been very evident watching from the outside. I think everybody has been taken aback and also just filled with admiration for the level of unity and intense collaboration that has been visible in all of the coverage.

RR:  Yeah, that’s absolutely true. And, I’m very proud actually for the work we have been doing for all these previous years, because it’s not about reports, it’s not about funds, but it’s about like the, the, the spirit, the nature of this movement which exists inside this country. The assumption which, Russian leader had, that actually he could use the segmentation inside the Ukrainian society didn’t work, the unity is enormous. Uh, so like many organizations started to work with vulnerables, to do some volunteer works, others – especially human rights community – are trying to organize their work actually to document the crimes committed during this aggression and to think creatively about the justice instruments, which could be available to address the huge injustice which is around.

AA: And are the human rights organizations and defenders and activists who’ve been working over the years in the field, are they talking to each other? Are they coordinating their work? How are they reacting together to this moment?

RR:  First of all, what started is a kind of enormous chaotic effort, of everyone to do everything possible. Like, if you cannot fight then just document injustice.  But it’s not productive since over-documentation could be source of a number of problems, especially for victims, witnesses… at certain moment, the coordination became real. Quite recently, 16 leading human rights groups established quite a broad coalition. They call themselves “Ukraine 5:00 AM.”  It’s the time when everyone in most cities of Ukraine woke up from bombshells and missiles attack on their peaceful cities. Now this coordination is, at least, established and I hope that it will lead towards efforts on advocacy, efforts on litigation, efforts on communication with our Ukrainian people, as well as international community.

AA: So before we get into that whole question of the documentation and the accountability, because there’s so much to talk about there, is there anything else that Ukraine 5:00 AM is prioritizing as human rights work at this moment or is the state of the crisis such that you can’t do other work – around protection, around discrimination, around other forms of kind of traditional human rights work?

RR: Oh, absolutely. It’s important to follow different developments. It’s a large-scale conflict. It’s very dynamic. There are lots of things happening around, so our colleagues from civil society organizations made a number of important statements. The first one was addressed to the Ukrainian authorities just to make sure that no discrimination exists on the border. People were trying to leave the country, among them there are lots of foreigners from different countries who don’t speak Russian Ukrainian languages. And, just to make sure that they are informed well, we just urged the, you know, different parts of the Ukrainian government, as well as the legal aid system of Ukraine to provide all necessary support for those people, just to avoid discrimination. Secondly,  it was important call for the Ukrainian authorities to make sure that the treatment towards the Russian prisoners of war – there are just hundreds of them – is in line with the requirements of the Geneva Convention, that the international humanitarian law is not violated from the side of the Ukrainian military forces. Then, very unfortunate developments are happening on the territories which are occupied by Russia’s military forces  because we have more and more reports about forced disappearances, executions as extrajudicial killings, torture. Um, unfortunately the organizers of pro-Ukrainian protests on those territories, members of municipal councils and other people being targeted to be persecuted. And of course the Ukrainian authorities could do nothing with that. And we recently addressed the appeal to UN Special Rapporteurs and different international institutions to pay attention to these very dangerous developments. So there’s just an examples of immediate reaction of Ukrainian civil society for different issues, all linked to the human rights developments in Ukraine

AA: That is impressive. I think for many people on the outside of this situation, it’s hard to imagine that there would be the bandwidth, the fortitude, the courage, the certainty about the mission to continue that core set of commitments, even though it might bring you into contradiction with, for example, your own government to offer a warning about protection of prisoners of war, is deeply encouraging.

RR: Uh, yeah, but I think that it’s not about criticizing the government, unfortunately just, it’s a question about lack of any policies and legal instruments. So nobody defined in advance the places the prisoners of war could be kept legally without violating their rights. Uh, you know, unfortunately there are extortion of evidence, which were made public, by the security forces of Ukraine, uh, security service of Ukraine. So I think that that’s something what the human rights groups, you know, have to be careful and it’s important to address those concerns. But again, it was not about raising the alarm, but actually offering some support and partners from civil society and universities inclusively working with the government with the prosecutor-general’s office on elaborating these rules, which recently been endorsed. So I think that it’s not only critics, but it’s very constructive position actually to minimize the violence and to minimize the scale of the human rights violations. But of course, you know, under conditions that you have just, you know, millions of people who had to just to leave their homes, um, you know, it’s very difficult to communicate those priorities. Because of course, uh, you know, people mostly, you know, believe that the main injustice which is happening around is the fact of this aggressive war.

AA: And there really doesn’t seem to be much to argue about there. It seems very clear that the Russian military machine has deliberately targeted civilians, residential areas, hospitals, schools, convoys of civilians attempting to escape the violence, they’ve all been targeted. And, it seems enormously understandable that, you know, people would feel that they are the victims of this completely outrageous assault and prioritize that fact among all the others.

RR:  Yeah, that’s true.  So the first tactic of Russian military to take fast control of the main cities in Ukraine, including Kiev, totally failed. And unfortunately now, they decided to horrify the population with the scale of invasion, with all these missiles and airspace attacks which are ongoing, especially in the nighttime. And like, you know, there are cities there, more than 80% of the residential areas, are ruined or if not total, at least damaged. You know, you can imagine, the attitudes of the people towards the occupying power.  But by the way, I think that the civil society groups, especially human rights organizations, have to just stick to certain values. And if we are in protection of our values, we cannot lose them. Because that’s a part of this war – it’s not about the territory, it’s not about controlling our cities, it’s about the control of our minds.

AA: So as you think about this assault and this, uh, horrific experience, how do you think about accountability? You talked about the challenge of doing effective and usable documentation in this moment and that there are efforts to guide people towards doing it well.  What for you is the right approach to this question of seeking accountability, given that you are right in the middle, in the hottest moment of the assault?

RR:  for the people who are living in these terrible conditions who survived all this missiles attack and indiscriminative shellings which are happening on a daily basis, it’s really important to have a kind of hope for justice so they see round, you know, injustice which is just being multiplied. I think what we can produce as civil society organizations working on human rights issues is a sort of hope, that actually, if we properly document, if we keep contacts with the victims and witnesses, with certain experience and level of work we can make, and the solidarity which we feel from the international community, we definitely can find the ways to address all these issues. Unfortunately, the criminal justice architecture so far does not seem to be effective. There we can just offer something, what the people could understand. You know, the ICC has started its investigation on Ukraine, but for eight years we’ve been pumping them with lots of reports on human rights abuses on the occupied territories of Ukraine. They conducted the preliminary examination. It took eight years. They produced .high quality report and nothing has happened – for eight years. So, I think that this large-scale crisis in Europe has to be discussed at a very high level of the international institutions, that our architecture probably does not meet the expectations of the people. We need new mechanisms, we need just new ideas, you know, we cannot wait for justice to be done in several generations of the people.  So it’s very slow. For many, people, this situation, at least in Europe, was understood that, you know, we have a post-world war two architecture which could prevent large conflict. And for the disputes which exist, there are, you know, structures like the European Court of Human Rights, which could, you know, support governments in their will to change the behavior. Now the situation, you know, says that all these instruments are not exist anymore. Russia just made the withdrawal from the Council of Europe. The ICC does not seem to be efficient to the extent we would like to see, but there are some just promising steps from the Office of the Prosecutor. We’ll see what sort of action we can expect.   At the same time, there are a number of European countries started investigation under the universal jurisdiction. Uh, again, that’s something what might be the way to go ahead. Of course, we still need the Ukrainian prosecutor and investigative authorities to be able to collaborate with foreign colleagues and to do their work efficiently. But it’s a very large conflict, not from the military side, but I think it challenges a lot the justice system and, again, it creates an opportunity to revise that, and to think about the mistakes made in the past.

AA:  Well, you in Ukraine are by no means the first people who need accountability and need justice to observe that these international instruments and their associated institutions do not perform at a level and at a speed that would meet the hopes and aspirations of victims. And so, in a way that just begs the question. It’s clear from what you said, that people want justice, they want accountability. But as you say, when you see the experience in the past, and when you listen to that list of concerns you just shared, one has a bit of a sinking feeling about how far those aspirations and hopes can be met. Let me ask you about this move to set up an international tribunal to hold Russia accountable for its aggression against Ukraine. That has received strong support from Ukraine’s government, your minister of justice. A statement from the Ukraine government said that Ukraine is working on collecting all the necessary evidence related to the crime of aggression. Do you have more hope of that being a more powerful or a faster, more effective mechanism?

RR: Um, I think, at that moment, it’s very hard to make real assessment. So far, this is one of the ideas at the table for discussion. I don’t think there is a significant political support to the idea of having the special tribunal. but if we identify the gap, then the occupying power, the aggressor has the seat at the UN Security Council. I think that the international community has to be creative in thinking how to address this huge injustice.

AA:  so just to make sure that I understand, the situation as it stands is that Russia – and indeed the United States – have avoided, so far any possibility of being held accountable for the crime of aggression through the existing instruments, unless the Security Council refers that accusation to the ICC, but because Russia is a member of the Security Council and can veto such a move, it would never be held accountable for aggression via the ICC or any other existing mechanism. Have I understood correctly?

RR: Yes, absolutely. The war crimes which we can just observe daily, they are just secondary from the aggression, which is absolutely unfair.  And this, aggression being justified by Russia – they are trying to play the game with different legal terms: “Ukraine is committing genocide” or something like that, explaining that their action is a sort of humanitarian intervention, what is of course not true.  But this dispute could highly be somehow solved… the dispute between the Ukraine and Russia at the, International Court of Justice over the Genocide convention: yesterday was the ruling from the Court, as a temporary measure, that Russia has to stop its aggression in Ukraine. But of course, it is going to be totally ignored by Russia. So we should think creatively, not about just giving recommendations, but how to have certain efficiency of the legal instrument, even if it would take certain time. So Ukraine is trying to engage different countries to think about the instruments which could be established. The tribunal is one of the potential solution. There are other options which could be at the table as well, like collaborative efforts of several countries to investigate a crime of aggression –  those countries which are having the crime of aggression as a part of their criminal legislation. Another option could be the collaborative efforts of the Council of Europe countries. I think that all these options should be at the table, the discussion should continue. We definitely identify the gap, which has to be filled.

AA: And can I ask you, how does such a move relate – if at all – to ending the violence, to ending Russia’s violent aggression? Is the assumption that doing this in some way would help to end violence, or is it essentially in parallel to, and irrelevant to the goal of ending the violence?

RR: first of all, I believe that it’s important to have the international community united. And, if we can clearly identify that this action is against international law, I think it just galvanizes that support. Secondly, it’s the right signal to the Russian society. We cannot change the leadership in Russia without having signs for freedom from the Russian society. And I think that, you know, more and more legal actions, signs that signal to the people in Russia, we actually are not against everyone in Russia, we want just normal neighbors, not aggressor on our border.

AA:  Is there, I mean, I think sometimes the fear has been that faced with united international condemnation and indictment, the incentive to reach a diplomatic solution goes away, that the perpetrator, the aggressor, then thinks, well, I’ve got nothing to lose because if I make a deal, they’re going to come after me and indict me.

RR: I think that at this moment, what people in Ukraine are looking for is not just a kind of interruption in this fighting. As I said, aggression started eight years ago. And if we all the time is trying just somehow to negotiate peace for a certain moment, the aggressor increasingly becoming more prepared for new wave of aggression, and more aggressive. So I think that one of the reason why this large-scale invasion happened now, because, you know, Putin felt almost impune for the previous action he made in Georgia in 2008, in Ukraine in 2014. So just the minor sanctions which probably influenced the VAT of the country on 2% – it’s not the real instrument to influence the behavior. And I think that, from that perspective, we should think about the role of justice in preventing for the future and avoiding this sort of stimulus, actually for the aggressor to continue his, action. I don’t think that there is 100% solution, how to deal with the people who can break any rule! But by the way, without hope for justice, I think it’s very hard to resist.

AA: So what we need is accountability. We need justice, but we need it fast, not the decade-long process of arcane, legalistic processes, grinding slowly through in institutions that are far from the view of the ordinary Ukrainian. You need to see some kind of accountability that has meaning, that’s proportionate to the situation that people are suffering.

RR: Yeah, I agree. And, you know, the leadership in the country wanted this war. They managed to get support from their population with a huge propaganda machine. And I think that what we need is a kind of justice instrument to address the needs, but at the same time, the ability to communicate widely about the principles, about justice, in a way that it’s not against Russian population. We need deeper understanding what happened, why that’s injustice, why it has to be stopped, why it has to be prevented and why, actually, Russian leaders have to be accountable for that.  Unfortunately Russian leaders militarized everything in last years. So it’s media, it’s culture, it’s sport, it’s religion – everything is part of, of this, like, state machine of fakes, and war. So from that perspective, I just want to come back to the issue that it’s not enough just to settle the deal, the fighting is stopped.  It will resume, in certain period of time. That’s why we really need to make a deep assessment, from the justice perspective: what has happened, what has been wrong and how we can influence that and what sort of signals we can send to the people in Russia and how we can overcome that.

AA: Okay. Roman, much solidarity with you and your fellow citizens. And thank you.

RR: Ah. thank you very much.


AA: Roman Romanov leads the rights and justice portfolio at the International Renaissance Foundation in Ukraine. You’ll find a transcript of our conversation on our website, strength and solidarity dot org. And if you want to dip further into the practicalities of international justice for Ukraine, we’ve included a selection of readings there.


AA: No coda this time but it will be back in episode 21 and we’ve got some terrific interviews in the weeks to come – from Myanmar, Libya and Egypt and a deep dive into the remarkable impact of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities …  We love getting your feedback – you can always write to us at For now, thanks to our producer Peter Coccoma, and program manager Cate Brown – I’m Akwe Amosu – see you next time.