February 9, 2023

Lessons have not been learnt, international law is not stopping Russia

Aleksandra Lasek in Warsaw, Poland

Article link copied.

slide image

The London protests against war in Ukraine.

Picture by: Garry Knight | Flickr

The notions of justice and peace are two essential building blocks of contemporary ethics and part of various legal documents, including international conventions.

On the night of 24 February 2022, Russia launched a military offensive in Ukraine, an attack widely considered to be a blatant violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine. As a result of the war, thousands lost their lives, millions had to seek refuge, and the entire world faced dangerous economic consequences. The violence has shaken the hearts and minds in Europe and worldwide – the call for justice was on the lips of many at the time.

Within a week, the prosecutors of the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity, of which Russian forces were accused. As the ICC has the power to try the most extreme breaches of international law, it sounded like there may come a  time for justice.  In reality,  there is a significant number of obstacles.

Firstly, states are not tried before the ICC – only people can stand trial there, so Russian president Vladimir Putin can be a defendant, but not Russia.

Secondly, those accused of crimes are not tried in absentia at the ICC. As they must appear in person before the court,  the ICC has long struggled with the issue of justice being evaded and high-profile indictments pending indefinitely.  In the past, heads of state have been accused, but then not brought before the ICC for years.  If Putin were to be accused of crimes as the head of state, the situation would become incredibly complex – the most notable example of this Omar Al Bashir, the former leader of Sudan, is the most notable example of this. He is the first head of state to be issued with an ICC arrest warrant.

Mentioned in this article

East West Street: on the origins of genocide and crimes against humanity

by Philippe Sands

W&N, 2016

496 pp., £9.99

The notions of genocide and crimes against humanity are essential for international law and the efforts to protect human rights. In his 2016 book, East West Street, British writer and lawyer Philippe Sands explained the origins of these two notions.

The author focuses on the biographies of two Jewish lawyers from Lemberg – known as Lviv, Ukraine today – Raphael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht. They were born as the 20th century began – in 1897 and 1900, respectively – and became prominent during the Nuremberg Trials when they layed the foundation of the international criminal law system.

To write the book, Sands, himself a renowned international law expert of Jewish-Polish descent (his grandfather was born in Lviv) transformed into an archaeologist – his narrative takes the reader through the ruins of a train station, a vacant lot where a synagogue once stood, an abandoned storefront, and a former university campus and the site of a Nazi camp in Poland, where Jewish people deemed unfit for forced labour were sent. There, Sands unearthed the early beginnings of the arguments that would one day stop Nazi war criminals from using the example of British colonialism or the murder of African-Americans by the Ku Klux Klan in their defence. The protagonists of his book are depicted as unyielding advocates for justice, who fought tirelessly, and also with one another, to create a legal framework which still allows us to hope that war crimes, including genocide, and crimes against humanity, won’t go unpunished.

Simultaneously, he narrates the intellectual history which resulted in the creation of the notions of crimes against humanity (based on individual rights, it prioritises crimes against specific men and women) and genocide (which emphasizes crimes targeting specific populations or communities).

Decades later, the vicious loop continues. For nearly a year, Ukraine has defended itself from Russian aggression but nothing indicates that we might expect those who started this war to face justice.  Sands’ book brings about the understanding that international criminal law needs a lot of work – but luckily it also gives the examples of Lemkin and Lauterpacht, who worked tirelessly to reinvent and improve the legal system and to create the fundamentals of human rights protection.

The question is whether we will show the same hunger and drive for justice as they did.

Written by:


Aleksandra Lasek

Human Rights Section Editor

Warsaw, Poland

Born in Krosno, Poland, in 2006, Aleksandra plans to major in political science in international relations with the ambition to acquire a degree in law. For Harbingers’ Magazine, she writes mostly about politics and social sciences with plans to contribute creative writing and poetry as well.

She started as a contributor for Harbingers’ Magazine in 2022. In 2023, she was promoted twice – first to the role of the Human Rights correspondent and, subsequently, to the Human Rights section editor. As the section editor, she commenced her work by organising the Essay on Women’s Rights Competition, which elected six members of the Women’s Rights Newsroom.

Aleksandra’s academic interests cover history, politics, civil rights movements and any word Mary Wollstonecraft wrote. She is also interested in music (her favourite performers being Dominic Fike, MF DOOM, and The Kooks) and anything that includes the voice of Morgan Freeman.

Aleksandra speaks English, Polish, and Spanish.


Create an account to continue reading

A free account will allow you to bookmark your favourite articles and submit an entry to the Harbinger Prize 2024.

You can also sign up for the Harbingers’ Weekly Brief newsletter.