08 Mar The Court of the Citizens of the World: Opinion of Priya Pillai, Judge of TCCW
The Court of the Citizens of the World’ – a peoples tribunal – was organized by the Cinema for Peace Foundation, relating to the crime of aggression in Ukraine. The tribunal considered charges brought against Vladimir Putin for the crime of aggression presented by a Prosecution team, and heard witness testimony from 20 – 23 February 2023 in public hearings in The Hague. The three judges at this tribunal – Zak Yacoob, Stephen Rapp and Priya Pillai – came to a decision regarding confirmation of the charges, and these posts are their independent reasons relating to the decision, pronounced at the last hearing of the tribunal on 24 February 2023.
24 February 2023
This World Court – or people’s tribunal – has been called to do what is not being done so far – to assess and make a legal determination as to the crime of aggression in Ukraine, and the responsibility for this crime.
While the crime of aggression is not new per se, it has not been prosecuted since the trials at Nuremberg. This is an opportunity to address some of the legal complexities in the crime of aggression. At this stage – the confirmation of the charges – it is to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to establish “substantial grounds” that a person has committed the crimes as charged.
But much more than this legal determination, the hearings this week have given an opportunity to survivors to come forward with their account of what has happened to them, and how they have coped with what can only be described as cataclysmic events in their lives. We thank them for their courage, fortitude and determination to bear witness.
Evidence has been adduced this past week of the devastating consequences of a war such as this. We have had moving testimony from many ordinary citizens of Ukraine, who, before 24 February 2022, were going about their regular lives. We heard from two teenagers whose bravery in the face of tremendous loss can only be viewed with absolute awe and complete compassion. We have had witness testimony this week from individuals from across Ukraine – from Kherson, Mariupol, Bucha, Hostomel, Kazarovici, Ritomer, Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Berdansk. They have spoken to us of the terror of the invasion and the upturning of their lives. They have told us their stories of extreme loss and pain, which no one should have to go through. They have been witness to and have experienced detention and captivity, torture, filtration camps, witnessed close family killed before their very eyes, and have described in detail the destruction of civilian infrastructure and the impact of this invasion on their lives.
This is the human face of a war such as this, and the impact of these actions that can only be described as illegal and criminal.
Coming to the specificity of the crime of aggression, I will focus on the elements of the crime of aggression – the character, gravity and scale, and the manifest violation of the UN Charter – as well as the acts defined that may qualify as aggression.
There is no doubt from the witness testimony as well as the documentary evidence provided to this tribunal that the invasion was of such a scale, gravity and character as to constitute the crime of aggression, that has violated the UN Charter. The attacks on Ukraine were spread all over the territory of the country, starting in the east and south, and enveloping much of the country subsequently. The ferocity and manner of the attacks – including artillery, aerial bombardment, ground troops, tanks – left no doubt as to the intentions of the invasion. Furthermore, the attacks were not restricted to military targets – there was rampant targeting of civilians, both in the initial days of the invasion as well as in occupied areas. We heard from the witnesses as well as had expert evidence of the deliberate targeting of hospitals, ambulances, pharmacies – 707 incidents recorded in one report – violative of the laws of war. These were in many instances targeted and in others, a result of indiscriminate acts. We heard from witnesses of the ways in which civilian infrastructure was targeted – from water facilities, to electric sub-stations, to bombardment of shopping centers and grocery stores. We heard of the over 31,000 potential war crimes cases documented by the Centre for Protection of Civil Liberties, with clear patterns of violations emerging from the analysis. The killings, detention, torture, the use of civilians as human shields, of conflict related sexual violence – all indicate an egregious violation of international law, and expose the character and manner of the invasion to be the ultimate crime of aggression. The words of the UN Secretary General, just yesterday at the emergency special session of the UN General Assembly to mark one year since the invasion, this is a “violation of the UN Charter and international law” – clear expression of the manifest violation of the UN Charter.
The commission of some of the acts that may qualify as aggression from Article 8 bis of the Rome Statute – such as, Attack on or occupation of the territory of another State by armed forces; Bombardment of territory of another State; Blockade of ports or coasts of another State; Attack by armed forces of the armed forces of another State; and the sending of irregulars or mercenaries – all indicated by evidence to have been committed here.
All these acts of aggression were of a scale and magnitude, to necessarily have been planned and prepared for, well in advance of 24 February. As the expert witness General Clark indicated, this type of invasion was certainly not possible “overnight”, and not even in 1-2 months. The planning, preparation, initiation and execution of these acts of aggression can be clearly laid at the doorstep of the leadership of the Russian Federation, and specifically that of the President, who exercises total control over the political and military action of the state. More than sufficient evidence has been adduced to the effect that the key decision maker was one individual – Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia.
I will end with two quotes from witnesses who appeared before us this week. On being asked why they were testifying, it was to “share the stories of evil”. And if we needed a reminder, in particular on this day, one year on, in the words of another witness: “the slaughter continues, the destruction continues”.
It is incumbent on us all to make every effort to end impunity such as this and it is our hope that this is one small step towards that goal.