Statement on the war in the Ukraine: On the need to permanently strengthen international law


Russia’s invasion of Ukrainian territory is in violation of international law and must be sharply criticized (see our statement from 28 February 2022). Since the beginning of the war, the conflict has escalated, with accumulating evidence of alleged war crimes committed against the Ukrainian civilian population. The West has thus far reacted with sanctions against Russia and arms shipments to the Ukraine.

It is certainly to be welcomed that in this situation, many actors have referred to international law, and in particular to the UN Charter’s prohibition on the use of force, as the normative framework for world order, and also that international institutions are addressing the war. It is indispensable – and not just in this conflict – to document violations of international law, to provide those affected with access to justice, and to investigate those responsible.

However, the legitimacy and efficacy of international law and its institutions have suffered greatly in recent decades, and Western states have contributed significantly to this process. International law must not only be implemented on a temporary and selective basis, as is currently proposed: the war must lead to a permanent change in the policies of international law for all states and a universal application of the law. In particular, restricted demands, such as limiting prosecution to the crime of aggression, must be rejected. Why should a separate tribunal on the Ukraine now be established when the war of aggression by the US, the United Kingdom and their allies against Iraq in 2003 and the war crimes committed have not seen similar legal consequences. This is what many voices in the Global South, in particular, are asking. For this reason, it is necessary to strengthen the definition of the crime of aggression in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, so that in the future, all violations of this kind can be prosecuted equally. A selective application of the law would encourage double standards and further damage international law and its legitimacy.

In our casework, we have experienced over many years that the rules of the so-called humanitarian international law are inadequate because they do too little to protect civilian populations from air and artillery attacks. This is true for the devastating destruction in the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Raqqa, as well as Mosul in Iraq, or the drone operations in Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, in Yemen, Libya or Somalia. International law focuses too much on the aggressors and their perspectives, which makes it significantly more difficult to determine whether attacks are unlawful and to adjudicate them as such under international law – especially with regard to commanders. States are required to review the rules for air and artillery attacks, as well as existing operational practices. Human rights-based rules must be established that provide more protection for civilian populations and trigger sanctions against the perpetrators.

In spite of this criticism, international crimes must be investigated and punished. A few days ago, the ICC, along with several public prosecutors’ offices in Europe, including the German Federal Public Prosecutor, launched investigative proceedings concerning the situation in the Ukraine. National and international law enforcement authorities must now work together in a coordinated manner. All states that have access to evidence, such as witness statements and documentation concerning chains of command, must secure it and make it available to one another. Survivors from the Ukraine should receive legal assistance, so that they may assert their rights in future proceedings – for this, a victim-sensitive approach with the corresponding training is necessary. There must be coordination as to which authorities will examine which complex of cases, and investigations should focus on sexualized and gender-based crimes from the outset. The aim of all of these efforts should be to generate arrest warrants, above all for high-ranking perpetrators.

Not only today but also in the future, national and international law enforcement agencies should apply the same practices and investigative zeal in all situations where international crimes are committed – regardless of who the perpetrators are.

The enforcement of international law and human rights is preferable to weapons shipments, rearmament, and sanctions. While these options may be justifiable under international law as a reaction to a breach of the UN Charter’s prohibition on the use of force it should, however, be kept in mind that such measures fuel and prolong wars, as well as the human rights violations that accompany them. This is always the case, also in regard to arms shipments to other conflict regions.
Currently, ECCHR is engaged in legal-strategic consultations with international and Ukrainian actors – also within the framework of our Investigative Commons project with Forensic Architecture. Within these exchanges, we are developing the methodology, as well as the coordination with other organizations and – first and foremost – with those affected. The strengthening of international law and its institutions in a lasting manner, free of double standards and selective prosecution, remains a core principle of our endeavors. To this end, we will also forge new transnational, civil society collaborations and initiatives to counter the language of violence with law and mutual solidarity.

Find out more in our web dossier, in which we explore avenues toward accountability at the national and international level for crimes arising from the conflict, as well as outline our approaches for strengthening international criminal law.

Who we are

To counter injustice with legal interventions – this is the aim and daily work of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights.

ECCHR is an independent, non-profit legal and educational organization dedicated to enforcing civil and human rights worldwide. It was founded in 2007 by Wolfgang Kaleck and other international human rights lawyers to protect and enforce the rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as other human rights declarations and national constitutions, through legal means.

Together with those affected and partners worldwide, ECCHR uses legal means to end impunity for those responsible for torture, war crimes, sexual and gender-based violence, corporate exploitation and fortressed borders.

Press Contact

Maria Bause
T: +49 30 69819797

Philipp Jedamzik
T: +49 30 29680591


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