Can we speak of a “genocide” perpetrated by the Russian army, as President Volodymyr Zelensky says?

“These are war crimes and will be recognized by the world as genocide”. two days later the discovery of innumerable corpses of civilians in the streets of Boutcha, the ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, went to this suburb of kyiv, on monday 4 april, to denounce the acts of the russian soldiers there, discovered after the retaking of the city by the ukrainian troops. The Head of State used the word, serious and full of history, of “genocide”.

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kyiv already used this term to refer to the murderous siege of Mariupol. After the discovery of the terrible images of Boutcha and other martyr towns, the accusation took another scope. Spain and Poland, in particular, have taken over. But others have avoided it, such as the president of the United States, Joe Biden, who, when asked about the term “genocide”preferred the “war crimes”. Franceinfo answers the questions raised by this debate.

A crime with a very precise definition…

The crime of genocide was created in 1948 by a UN convention, and its definition has not changed since then. Designates certain acts (mainly murders) committed in “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”.

Therefore, this narrow definition excludes many scenarios. “A genocide cannot target a political or cultural group”, explains Yann Jurovics, professor of public law at the University of Paris-Saclay, who collaborated with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Although some legal scholars believe that a term is needed to designate the eradication of a culture, it is not within the scope commonly accepted today.

Furthermore, it is necessary to demonstrate “a policy that aims to destroy the group as such, simply because it exists.” Unlike, for example, the massacres that would have as their objective the conquest of a territory, the jurist explains: “In this case, the motive is not hatred of the other”. On the other hand, there is no minimum number of victims, as long as it can be shown that the objective is to eradicate the target population.

The genocides whose recognition leads to consensus can be counted on the fingers of one hand, recalls Yann Jurovics: the genocide of the Armenians in 1915, that of the Jews in September 1941 and that of the Tutsis in April 1994. It can be added that of the hererosa village in Namibia, by Germany since 1904: yes “We lack elements from the legal point of view” to decide more than a century later, Germany recognized it in 2015.

… but that does not correspond to the Ukrainian context

Various constituent elements of a genocide are, as we know it, absent from the situation in Ukraine, in the eyes of Yann Jurovics. The perpetrators of the genocide, intending to wipe out the group they target, “they attack everyone they find.” This is not what appears to have happened in Boutcha, where many of the victims were clearly arbitrarily executed civilians, but where other inhabitants saved their lives and testify today. The number of victims is in the hundreds, but the Russian army did not exterminate the entire population of this city of 37,000 inhabitants.

The Russian forces, although they besieged certain cities, did not “He prevented all Ukrainians from leaving”, another aspect that would otherwise help characterize the will not to forgive anyone. There is also nothing to suggest the existence “killing centers”. And the Russian army does not particularly target women and children, priority targets during genocides, because the target is then “definitively destroy the group”deciphers Yann Jurovics.

In a widely shared message On twitter (in English)On Monday, another expert on genocide, the historian and political scientist Eugene Finkel, from Johns Hopkins University in the United States, said he was convinced of the existence of a genocide, in particular after the publication of an article by the official Russian agency Ria. Novosti. Published on Sunday and abridged in English by a Belarusian journalistthis text defends a very broad vision of what Russia qualifies as “denazification” Ukraine, an intention repeatedly claimed by Vladimir Putin: all Ukrainians who have taken up arms must be eliminated, and the majority of the Ukrainian population supports the Nazis, writes in particular the state press organ. “One of the most explicit statements I have seen about the intention to destroy a national group”believes Eugene Finkel, himself an Israeli, but born in the Ukraine.

But here again, the jurist Yann Jurovics does not agree with this analysis: the Russian discourse does not pretend “a biological group”but supporters of a political idea (whether real or not). “The simple test, to determine if it is a genocide, is to ask if the victim has a choice. A Tutsi, for example, could not choose not to be Tutsi anymore”, he explains. The discourse of Russian power, on the other hand, leaves the Ukrainians the option of giving up their defense of the country’s independence and their national identity. “In practice, it is a very limited option”, admits the lawyer. But he distinguishes the discourse of Russian power from the genocidal discourse, “which would link political thought to a biological criterion”.

Other possible qualifications

Joe Biden demanded a war crimes trial on Monday, an easier qualification to establish. Attacks on civilians, including they are war crimesand they are numerous and have been documented since the beginning of the Russian invasion at the end of February, both in Boutcha and in Mariupol or Kharkiv.

Crime against humanity is another possible qualification. Designates, according to Yann Jurovics, “a policy of deprivation of fundamental rights against people because of their belonging to an identity”.

“If the Russian power attacks civilians in the context of an armed conflict, it is a war crime. If the population is attacked because it is Ukrainian, then it is a crime against humanity.”

Yann Jurovics, professor of public law and former jurist at the International Criminal Court


However, it is necessary to establish that the actions of the Russian army are the result of a concerted policy, explains this specialist. “It’s hard without written evidence, and confessions almost never exist”, he warns. But repeating certain methods can allow it to be set: “If we realize that the Russian army leaves a mass grave in all the cities it occupied, then this can testify to a determined policy at a higher level.” The International Criminal Court (ICC) has already opened an investigation into all acts committed in Ukraine in early March, although the prospect of one day seeing Vladimir Putin on trial is unlikely.

“A crime against humanity is neither less nor more serious than genocide”Yann Jurovics also recalls. For legal specialists, these two crimes describe different situations. “But sometimes the label ‘genocide’ is invoked because it gives the impression of a hierarchy” in horror, of what would be the final stage. Using this term, rightly or wrongly, is understandable at a time when it comes to putting pressure on the international community to react. But the lawyer remembers “that there has never been a military intervention to stop a genocide, in Rwanda for example”.

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