‘There has to be accountability’: Irish expertise strengthens Ukraine’s push for war crimes justice

‘Absolutely inspiring’ to work in wartime Kyiv despite missile strike 80m from office

Russia’s invasion force was smashed in the outer suburbs of Kyiv earlier this year, leaving devastation, mass graves and allegations of atrocities in its wake, but Moscow’s missiles can still strike anywhere in Ukraine, including the very heart of the capital.

Two months ago a Russian rocket exploded beneath a landmark pedestrian bridge near Kyiv’s storied Maidan square, shattering windows in nearby buildings including the headquarters of the European Union Advisory Mission (EUAM), where seven Irish legal and security experts are among those helping Ukraine prepare for future war crimes trials.

The building is still being repaired, but no one was hurt in the blast and the EUAM’s 300 or so local and international staff did not stop working, as Ukraine’s liberation of much of the southern Kherson region revealed yet more evidence of apparent Russian atrocities.

“There have been massive attacks on the civilian population, and as areas are being liberated the scale of what’s happened is coming to light,” says Maura O’Sullivan, a former garda from Limerick who is now EUAM chief of staff after working in the Balkans and Georgia.

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“The office of the prosecutor general here has a mandate on war crimes and they need support because this is huge – it’s beyond what any system could deal with alone… There has to be accountability for what has happened and is still happening.”

After the Maidan revolution of 2013-14 ousted pro-Kremlin leaders in Ukraine and pivoted the country towards the West, the EUAM was established at Kyiv’s request to help it reform a discredited criminal justice system marred by corruption and incompetence.

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of its neighbour in February, EU states also mandated the EUAM to facilitate the flow of Ukrainian refugees into the bloc and boost Ukraine’s ability to investigate and prosecute so-called international crimes, which include war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture and genocide.

“There’s an awful lot of work to be done,” says Aonghus Kelly, the EUAM’s senior adviser on prosecution of international crimes, who worked on related issues from Bosnia to Cambodia before becoming executive director of Irish Rule of Law International.

“If we can assist our Ukrainian colleagues to compile these investigations in the best possible manner, then they will have the best possible chance of successful prosecution in Ukraine or at any international court,” says Kelly (42).

“Is it possible that there will be high-level crimes taken to the International Criminal Court or somewhere else? It’s quite possible. But the vast majority of cases will be dealt with here in Ukraine,” the Galwegian adds.

Ukraine says it has opened more than 40,000 cases into crimes allegedly committed by Russian troops, including murder, torture and sexual violence, and its courts have already convicted two captured Russian soldiers – one for shooting dead an unarmed civilian and the other for firing a tank shell at an apartment block.

The EU recently proposed the establishment of a special court, backed by the United Nations, to investigate and prosecute Russia for the crime of aggression against Ukraine, where the invasion has killed many thousands of civilians and displaced millions.

Outrage over the discovery of mass graves and torture chambers in previously occupied areas has been compounded by Russia’s deliberate bombing of Ukrainian power stations, which has wrecked much of the national grid and cut heat, light and water to millions of people just as winter begins to bite.

Yet there is widespread scepticism in Ukraine and abroad over whether Russia’s political leaders and senior officers will ever face trial for their alleged crimes, given Moscow’s diplomatic and military muscle and its UN security council veto.

“At the higher level – who knows what’s going to happen in the future?” Kelly says.

“The reality is that cases will be put together and indictments issued. And people are often silly – they get on planes to places they shouldn’t really go to and then they are surprised when they get arrested. So I wouldn’t discount that possibility at all,” he adds.

“But if you don’t do the case properly now, then it doesn’t matter if you find the guys in 10 or 15 years, because you won’t have a case to put in front of them.”

Kelly lists the Kremlin’s “public pronouncements, the evidence, the widespread systematic crimes that have been undertaken and the denial of the existence of a [Ukrainian] nationality” as indicators that Russia may be committing genocide – something Kyiv says is abundantly clear.

“I think there is a very strong case for it now,” Kelly says.

O’Sullivan acknowledges there is a sense of danger here “all the time”, particularly since the Russian missile exploded just 80m from EUAM headquarters.

“But to be here and see how Ukrainians are getting on with things and really doing their best to have some sort of ‘normal’ life is absolutely inspiring,” she says.