On 21 April 2022, the Estonian parliament (Riigikogu) adopted the statement “On the War Crimes and Genocide committed by the Russian Federation in Ukraine”.
Members of the Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovna Rada) were present to observe the process. Olena Shuliak described the vote as historically important for Ukraine. Earlier, the Ukrainian parliament had adopted a similar resolution, and, in parallel with Estonia, the Latvian parliament was doing so.
86 members of the Estonian parliament voted in favour of passing the Statement, while 15 deputies were not present. The Statement was talking about the war crimes, but then declared:
“… the Russian Federation has committed acts of genocide, inter alia mass atrocities against the civilian population.”
Then, the Statement announced that it was based on international conventions:
“Proceeding from the Declaration of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine to the national parliaments of the world; guided by the principles of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and the standards of customary international law; keeping in mind the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court…”
Unfortunately, there is something fishy about it. Based on Western and Russian news, neither Russian activities in Ukraine nor its corresponding intentions do not seem to fit the standard definition of “genocide”. Genocide, as it is usually meant, is the intentional destruction of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group as such (contemplate why it is called geno-cide).
Let me shortly explain how I perceive the situation.
During the Donbas Civil War in 2014–2015, both warring parties committed war crimes. During and after the civil war, for 8 years, Ukraine has shown signs of genocide toward the Russian population in Donbas.
If it is an unjustified war, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 is a crime against peace. However, starting a war is not a war crime in itself. Instead, war crimes consist in the way war is fought. For example, the deliberate killing of civilians is a war crime.
Both sides have committed war crimes in the current Ukraine/Russia war. We can also talk about crimes against humanity.
However, the decision of the Estonian parliament on the Russian genocide in Ukraine is dubious. Russia’s actions in Ukraine do not respond well to the definition of genocide.
To show that Russia is carrying out genocide in Ukraine according to the generally accepted definition and conventions of “genocide”, it is necessary, firstly, to show intent and, secondly, to show the mass-killing of such a group of people as, for example, the Ukrainians.
However, Ukraine has not provided statistics on the percentage of Ukrainians killed in Butcha and the corresponding percentage of killed Russians. In the case of Mariupol, there are no such statistics either; in fact, the Ukrainian press avoids mentioning in its articles even what percentage of Mariupol’s local population were Ukrainians and what percentage were Russians.
Military operations are currently taking place mainly in the eastern part of Ukraine, where Russians predominate.
At the moment, it is difficult to see how to justify the allegation of genocide against Ukrainians.
The alleged intention is also dubious.
The intention of the Ukrainians to exterminate the Russians or expel them is sufficiently demonstrated by the repeated public calls of their own extremist nationalists.
Russia’s public propaganda, on the other hand, talks about humanitarian aid being sent to Ukraine, the desire not to kill civilians, the opening of evacuation corridors, and the Geneva Conventions, and promises that if Mariupol fighters were imprisoned, Russia would follow those conventions.
However, an expert examination must verify telephone conversations allegedly intercepted by some intelligence services. NATO countries should not have carried out this examination as they are indirectly involved in the war and cannot be considered neutral.
Definition of “genocide”
Since the UN Convention on Genocide 1948, the definition of “genocide” has been the same in all the encyclopedias or conventions I have seen. The latest version I have found is the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), as amended in 2010 and 2015. Article 6 Genocide:
For the purpose of this Statute, “genocide” means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
I would not interpret the “national group” above as based on citizenship. If citizenship has been in mind, then, instead of “nation”, the unambiguous word “citizenship” would be used.
Extending the definition
Suppose that an extended definition of “genocide” would be used to accuse and judge Russia. However, several problems would arise. Let us mention only the most important of them.
First, the Estonian parliament’s decision explicitly refers to currently existing conventions and laws.
Second, the extended definition would be applied backwards-looking. It is a characteristic of despotism.
Third, how exactly the notion of “genocide” should be extended? — Suppose that it would amount to the notion of populicide. Then, however, the word “genocide” is not adequately used. Moreover, how can one prove Russia’s intention to kill all the population in Ukraine indifferently if one of the cited reasons to start the invasion was the aim to defend Russians in Ukraine from the genocide?
Unfortunately, without using the term “genocide” broadly, the only remaining option seems to be tacitly assuming that the vast majority of Ukrainian habitants are Ukrainians by nationality. This may amount to the racist negligence of, say, 30% of the population. They simply do not exist.
To sum it up: the Statement should have been limited to charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, massacres, etc. But the charge of genocide seems seriously inadequate.
I am already ashamed to be an Estonian because the Estonian parliament practically unanimously adopts weird decisions and laws. I will not mention any other flawed points in this last decision here.
I am afraid that Western countries’ parliaments will decide that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is aggression and 2 + 2 = 5. If anyone objects that 2 +2 = 4, they immediately respond that this is Russian propaganda and an attempt to justify unjustified aggression.
However, as Winston Smith says in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-four:
“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four. If that is granted, all else follows.”
Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), 9 December.
genocide. Encyclopedia of Britannica.
genocide. Online Etymology Dictionary.
genocide (1998) Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Article 6. 17 July.
Kangro, Karin (2022) “Riigikogu adopted a Statement on Russia’s war crimes and genocide in Ukraine”. Parliament of Estonia, Press Releases. 21 April.
Orwell, George (2013) Nineteen Eighty-four. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, p 77.
Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) (2015)
Statement of the Riigikogu. On the War Crimes and Genocide committed by the Russian Federation in Ukraine (2022) Estonian Parliament, 21 April.