Why the new Ukraine-Russia ECHR judgment matters

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has issued a landmark ruling recognizing Russia’s occupation of eastern Ukraine since 2014. The finding, which forms part of the court’s ruling on admissibility of the case of Ukraine against Russia, has far-reaching consequences.

The ECHR announced on January 25 that Russia had exercised “effective control” over the separatist regions of eastern Ukraine since May 11, 2014. In doing so, the Court formally recognized the interstate character of the conflict and the guilt of Russia in human rights violations.

  • The interior of the courtyard (Photo: paulbavo)

The ECHR’s decision marks an important step in advancing three interstate complaints filed by Ukraine against Russia, one jointly with the Netherlands regarding the downing of Malaysian airline flight MH-17.

Moreover, this legal development aligns with the conclusion of the 2021 ECHR that, since February 27, 2014, Russia also exercised “effective control” over Crimea, more than fifteen days before the referendum on “reunification of the peninsula.

The decision comes amid a flurry of domestic and international legal efforts to hold Russia accountable for its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. A week earlier, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favor of a UN-backed special tribunal to try Russian political and military leaders for the crime of aggression.

Others, including former British prime ministers Gordon Brown and John Major, have preferred a Nuremberg-style tribunal — a treaty-based tribunal created by a collective of like-minded states.

Armed with the legal position of the ECHR, the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office, UN courts and national delegations now have a binding reference point on when and where Russian military operations in Ukraine began.

But the importance of this finding goes far beyond legal forums alone.

The ECHR ruling helps set the record straight about the causes (and responsibility) of the 2014-22 war in Ukraine.

Dispelling the “civil war” myth

Russia has consistently defined the war in the eastern regions of Ukraine along ethnic and linguistic lines. The portrayal of events as an internal affair served to perpetuate outlandish claims of a Ukrainian genocide by Russians in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

These lies pave the way for all-out war.

Putin’s justification for the so-called special military operation rests on the false assertion of the need to “protect” ethnic Russians from a fascist, neo-Nazi Ukrainian government.

Unfortunately, this misinterpretation of the Civil War has persisted in Western thinking for nearly a decade, in part because of a concerted disinformation campaign that continues to this day.

Even in the face of overwhelming evidence and Putin’s own admission of a Russian military presence, media and political commentators characterized the situation as an internal conflict. The eastern rebels were described as “pro-Russian” or “Moscow-backed”, but rarely controlled by Russia.

On the contrary, in 2014 a fringe separatist movement was bolstered by a massive Russian military incursion, forcing Ukraine to capitulate to the Minsk peace process. Then, as the fighting continued, a Russian occupation regime emerged.

The Ukrainian government later changed the name of its deployment in eastern Ukraine from Counter-Terrorism Operation to Joint Forces Operation.

The relabeling in April 2018 sent a message that Ukraine was, for all intents and purposes, at war with Russia.

However, it wasn’t until the disastrous invasion of Russia in 2022 that the mainstream media followed suit.

The ECHR ruling represents a small victory for Ukraine, which has doggedly pursued legal avenues for redress. Similarly, Russian genocide claims are being challenged in the International Court of Justice in what has been deemed a state libel case.

De facto recognition of the Russian occupation is not a silver bullet – it will be years before interstate ECHR cases are concluded – but it marks an important turning point in history.

As it advances on the battlefield, Ukraine is regaining control of the information space.


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