The following was written by Jonathan Wiersema L’ 24, who worked as a Legal Horizons Rule of Law Fellow this past summer in Tbilisi, Georgia. The name of the interviewee in the essay has been changed for privacy reasons.
“Here it’s all bad … but it’s better to all die at home than in a bunker.”
Somberly I listened as Dima recounted his elderly parents’ response to his pleas to evacuate their home in Mariupol after Russian forces began shelling the city earlier this year. Dima was the first of our in-depth interviewees from Ukraine at the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) in Tbilisi, Georgia, where I worked this summer to help build universal jurisdiction cases against war criminals.
As he proceeded to relate the details of his escape from the warzone, I thought about how justice and peace seem elusive when stories like Dima’s pervade news headlines. Yet my work investigating and documenting war crimes reaffirmed for me that, though it often takes considerable time and is fraught with numerous hurdles, international law has a vital role to play in bringing accountability to perpetrators of global atrocities.
Scouring Russian social media and news each day, I turned my research into weekly reports documenting evidence of war crimes for IPHR. Even initial steps towards accountability were difficult as I inevitably had to exclude much of the content, be it due to the inability to verify intercepted phone calls between soldiers or the challenge of determining an airstrike’s legality. Worst of all was convincing a refugee to divulge the darkest moments of their life only for their testimony to be rendered inadmissible by gaps or contradictions. I understand the need for standards of evidence: guilt must be proven, not presumed. Yet I cannot help but think of how many people’s suffering will go unaccounted for because trauma, selective memory, or insufficient documentation obscure facts.
Assigning culpability is similarly complicated. Walking to work, I passed graffitied buildings with “F*CK RUSSIANS” and “RUSSIANS GO HOME” sprawled across their exteriors. Sometimes I was overtaken with indignation thinking of the soldiers I have investigated who loot, rape, and kill the people of Ukraine. How can people do such horrific things? Other times, I recalled Dima’s refusal to identify the Russian conscripts who helped his family flee to safety. Are they guilty or righteous? Still more, I cannot forget my Russian colleagues who sat alongside me, working to shed light on these abuses. What separates nationality from a nation?
On February 24, 2022, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, a different question occupied my thoughts: Why did I come to law school to study international law when the unfolding crisis made legally enshrined principles seem like empty promises?
Interning with IPHR in the months since, I have found resolve in realizing that it is not only people that need protecting but also the law itself. Russian state officials and propagandists shamelessly invoke the same virtues they are infringing. In their narrative, the language of human rights cloaks the targeting of civilians and recasts a war of aggression as a humanitarian intervention. Much of international law is based on legally obligated state practice that over time develops into custom. But just as customary international law can be built, it can also be eroded. Because of this, Russia’s invasion risks not only exacting enormous human costs on people like Dima and his family but also leading other nefarious actors to believe that these legal rules are open to reinterpretation.
After Dima’s interview, our office received unexpected news: the European Court of Human Rights returned a favorable judgment from work IPHR did in 2008. The thought of waiting almost 15 years for justice is hard to fathom, especially as atrocities continue to unfold in Ukraine.
While my work this summer has shown that not every instance of wrongdoing can go addressed, it has also proven to me that the immense obstacles are not insurmountable. I appreciate that the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s support made my experience as a Legal Horizons Rule of Law Fellow possible. I do not expect to get any conclusive results from this summer alone, but I know I will continue grappling with these hurdles to justice both in the classroom and in my future career.