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Researchers in law: Russia is violating international

What does international law say about the possibilities of bringing President Putin to justice, about sanctions and freedom of expression in war? Stockholm University researchers in law provide the answers.

Protester framför ryska ambassaden i Warsawa mot det ryska anfallet på Ukraina.
Protests in front of the Russian Embassy in Warzaw against the war i Ukraine. Photo: Reuerendo/Mostphotos

Pål Wrange is a professor of public international law at Stockholm University and director of the Stockholm Centre for International Law and Justice (SCILJ). According to him, Russia's actions in Ukraine are a clear example of aggression/war of aggression and an armed attack, according to international law. This justifies the self-defense of Ukraine and any allies.

He points out that even before the large-scale attack on February 24, Russia committed several serious violations of international law. The first is the occupation and illegal annexation of Crimea. The second is the political and (hidden) military interference from 2014 in eastern Ukraine, which according to international law is a war of aggression or aggression. Finally, the Russian recognition of the "People's Republics" in Luhansk and Donetsk is a gross violation of Ukraine's sovereignty.


Russian "peacekeepers" should be seen as an occupying force

Pål Wrange Photo: Staffan Westerlund
Pål Wrange
Photo: Staffan Westerlund

If Russia were to forcibly replace the government in Ukraine, Sweden should continue to treat the Zelensky government as the legitimate government, including its diplomats in Sweden, the UN and elsewhere. If President Putin plans to leave "peacekeepers" in the Donbas, such a force could not be seen as anything other than an occupying force. Thus, Russia is taking the step to become an open occupier, and then it can no longer escape direct responsibility for the population in these areas.

According to Pål Wrange, there is also a strong basis for imposing harsh peaceful sanctions (see below) as well as supporting Ukraine militarily.


President Putin can be prosecuted for war crimes

Pål Wrange says that President Putin can be prosecuted before the International Criminal Court (ICC) if he is responsible for war crimes or crimes against humanity. The same applies to those who are co-responsible. No immunity applies to the ICC. The court already has jurisdiction under an earlier decision, and the prosecutor can choose to proceed at any time.
“Putin can also, like all those responsible, be prosecuted for war crimes or crimes against humanity before national courts in any country, including Sweden. Putin himself would be protected by immunity as incumbent president, but that does not apply to his generals,” says Pål Wrange.

If Putin were to be prosecuted, it is likely that any of the 123 countries that are party to the ICC Charter would be obliged to hand him over to the ICC, and this threat reduces his chances of serving as president.
“When Putin resigns (if he ever does) he could be prosecuted anywhere. Putin has already committed a crime of aggression, which is also an international crime. However, only Ukraine and Russia have jurisdiction over this crime,” says Pål Wrange.


Both the EU and individual member states can impose sanctions

Marios Iacovides
Marios Iacovides

Marios Iacovides is a senior lecturer in European law at Stockholm University, with a research focus (among others) on EU sanctions and international trade policy. He says that both the EU and the member states can impose sanctions and adopt other trade restrictive measures. On the EU level, sanctions against Russia are imposed on the basis of various legal bases in the EU treaties.

EU sanctions require first a proposal from the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, which is then adopted by way of a Councils decision, within the framework of the common foreign and security policy. If the decision requires the freezing of assets or other types of economic or financial sanctions, a Council Regulation must be adopted within the framework of the EU Common Commercial Policy. The sanctions can be either directed at the country as a whole (e.g., a total trade ban) or at certain groups (e.g., a terrorist group) or companies and individuals ("smart sanctions").

What other trade policy measures against Russia may be relevant?
“We have already seen a variety of different measures, for example that member states have closed their airspace to Russian airlines and that they have excluded certain Russian banks from the international payment system Swift. It is possible that the EU coordinates a total exclusion of Russian airlines from all over the EU and tries to find ways to make it more difficult for Russian oligarchs to circumvent the sanctions,” says Marios Iacovides.

“One measure that is also being discussed is to stop the possibility for member states to provide ´golden passports´ to Russian citizens in return for investment. Another measure is to exclude Russian media companies from broadcasting within the EU.
“I also expect that trade relations will be affected within the World Trade Organization (WTO) where both the EU and the member states as well as Russia are members. For example, the EU can discriminate against imports from Russia and justify this with an exception in the WTO treaties on security,” says Marios Iacovides.

Which sanctions do you think can have the greatest effect?
“The sanctions that would have had the greatest effect are those against Russia's exports of gas and oil, as that would restrict the country's largest source of income. But the EU is heavily dependent on imports of these energy sources from Russia. It is important to understand that all sanctions also harm the economy of those who introduce them, both because they make imports more expensive or put obstacles in the supply chain of domestic companies, but also because the country towards which the sanctions are directed can impose counter-sanctions,” says Marios Iacovides.


Freedom of expression is often restricted in conflicts

Sally Longworth Photo: Staffan Westerlund
Sally Longworth
Photo: Staffan Westerlund

Sally Longworth is a doctoral student in public international law at Stockholm University and do research on, among other things, freedom of expression and propaganda in connection with armed conflicts.

Research shows that parties to armed conflict often impose measures limiting or restricting the means of expression, including restrictions on expressing opinions in favour of the opponent, even down to bans on specific words.
“There are countless examples of this throughout history, but one example that does stand out is the experiences of those living in Germany and German occupied territories during the Second World War. Individuals who try to exercise their right to freedom of expression are vulnerable to further violations of their rights based on this,” says Sally Longworth.

She adds that this was extremely telling during the conflict in Iraq in 2003, which marked a turning point in the number of deaths of journalists in conflict.

Violations of the right to freedom of expression have been raised as a concern since the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine in 2014.
“The actions seen within recent days need to be understood against the backdrop of these violations. This has contributed to creating a significant mistrust in events and information, spreading fear and uncertainty among the civilian population.


Cyber operations make transparency difficult

Last weeks, there have been numerous reports of cyber operations against Ukrainian government websites and banks. The combination of blocking access to other information sources and manipulation of information available amplifies the problems created by these activities.
“This is of course particularly concerning for those affected within the area of the conflict, but is also of grave concern for those outside the conflict area trying to verify if the parties to the conflict are upholding their obligations to respect international humanitarian law,” says Sally Longworth.


Information is blocked in Russian-controlled areas

Within Crimea free access to information has been restricted through a variety of measures, including requirements for media and journalists to register with the Russian authorities, blocking access to alternative information sources and prosecuting individuals who voice critique against the occupation from the beginning of the occupation. Similar measures have been introduced by armed groups in control of territory in Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as violent suppression of individuals trying to exercise their right to freedom of expression, such as journalists and bloggers. In addition to restrictions on local journalists, foreign journalists have difficulties accessing and reporting on events in these areas.
“The civilian population are therefore left in a very vulnerable position. Similarly, there are other violations and concerns relating to the population in Russia,” says Sally Longworth.

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