The conflict in Ukraine is primarily viewed as a military struggle, but for lawyers and legal experts, the war is also a battle for justice, transparency, and the rule of law. If Russia is not made to answer for its crimes, and if reconstruction is not done with transparency, Ukraine may lose–no matter the war’s outcome.
For the CEELI Institute, holding Russia to account for its aggression against Ukraine has been a focus since the war’s earliest days. Last week, supporters gathered in Prague for the Institute’s annual Rule of Law Symposium, where Russia’s legal accountability topped the agenda.
“Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, said that the rule of law is the best hope for peace in the world,” Christina Agor, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Prague, said in opening remarks. “I know it can be hard to talk about hope in these times, as Putin’s Russia continues its illegal, unjustified, and inhumane full-scale invasion of Ukraine.”
“But this is exactly the right moment to double down in support of principles like equality before the law, transparency and governance, and judicial independence,” Agor said. “These are part of what’s at stake in Ukraine.”
Mark Ellis, chair of the CEELI Institute board and executive director of the International Bar Association, said that, in many ways, legal history is repeating itself in Europe. In 1942, the Allies signed the St. James Declaration on how war crimes should be punished, a debate that has resurfaced.
“One of the signatories of that declaration was the exiled prime minister of Czechoslovakia, Jan Šramek,” Ellis said. Šramek pointed out that the agreement “rightly stipulated that all those guilty and responsible for the crimes committed in this conflict, whether they have ordered them, perpetrated them, or participated in them, be brought to justice.”
Czechoslovakia’s support for the rule of law then, and the Czech Republic’s support now, has brought the region “full circle,” Ellis added.
Legal scholars like Ellis say that Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, will one day answer for their crimes, just as those who perpetrated crimes during World War II. The recent arrest warrant for Putin issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) is the clearest sign that the world’s legal order is preparing for the post-war eventuality.
For its part, Ukraine is pursuing its own accountability means. Speaking online from the basement of his office in Kyiv as ballistic missiles rained overhead, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin told the symposium that Ukraine’s legal system has already investigated 342 war crime suspects and convicted 51.
“The Russian invasion of Ukraine is an act of aggression,” Kostin said. “From the very first day of this war, Ukraine has explicitly declared that it will defend its sovereignty, territorial integrity and freedom of the Ukrainian soil, while at the same time employ all of the available legal avenues to end impunity for [Russia’s] most serious crimes.”
Russia’s crime of aggression must also be prosecuted. A number of international bodies, including the European Council and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, have called for a special tribunal to investigate and prosecute Russian crimes of aggression. Many believe that the United Nations General Assembly—through a special resolution calling for the creation of the tribunal—is the best guarantee for success.
But Alena Lunova, advocacy director for Human Rights Center ZMINA, a Kyiv-based NGO, told the Symposium that Ukraine’s legal system may still need to be up to the task. For one, Ukraine isn’t a state party to the Rome Statute, which created the ICC. She said other issues like corruption, a lack of transparency, and outdated legal frameworks need to be addressed.
“We need to train judges and investigators, and we also need to change the criminal code, add new articles and new descriptions of international law and war crimes,” she said. “Ukraine’s legal system must be protected and supported.”
Ellis also emphasised the need to ensure that national trials meet international standards of fairness and impartiality— “doing so will be a major part of Ukraine’s legacy in this war,” Ellis said.
Accomplishing these tasks may be a tall order while Ukraine remains under Russian assault. But that is precisely what the CEELI Institute is trying to do – by training Ukraine’s prosecutors, judges, and young lawyers and through meetings like the Rule of Law Symposium.