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22 February, 2019  ▪  Спілкувався: Yuriy Lapayev

Marie Lequin: “It is a war, and in war there are always violations of the laws”

The Ukrainian Week talked with a representative of the Swiss humanitarian organization Geneva Call on the contemporary conflicts, the features of the search for justice and the application of international humanitarian law in an armed conflict

What do you see as the most problematic issue in avoiding mass crimes against civilians in international context according to your experience?

– What has changed from past decades is that conflicts used to involve two or more state armed forces fighting one another on battlefields, which is no longer the case. Now states are often fighting with armed groups, armed groups are fighting among themselves, and very often this fighting takes place in urban settings. Excessivecollateral damage is therefore significant and civilians are paying the price. There is no sufficient consideration of civilian protection. Public infrastructure is being destroyed and the long-term consequences of this are bad for health, education and the development of countries undergoing armed conflicts. 

Is it actually possible to find the truth and justice in conditions of ongoing armed conflict as we have in Ukraine? 

– All those who fight, at the state or non-state level, should keep in mind that everything that takes place will eventually come to light and, because there are lot of organizations monitoring the situation, everything is being documented. The idea is to get closer to the truth. We can never really agree on what exactly the truth is, but we try to get as close as possible to seeking justice, after the conflict. So even if justice is not served now, it will be in the future. Everyone should therefore be aware of that fact and behave in the best way to avoid criminal prosecution and unnecessary civilian suffering. 

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Why it is still important to continue searching for the truth if justice can be achieved only in the distant future?

– I think there are two answers. The first is that by trying to find out what is happening we also put pressure on those fighting to behave in agreement with the law. Secondly, justice is a path to reconciliation and, if justice is not achieved, peace deals can become very fragile.

Are there any examples of success in that field?

– One of the most prominent examples is the case of the former Yugoslavia. There were many people convicted for violations of International Humanitarian Law by national courts.  It is very important to keep in mind that domestic jurisdiction must do its job first.  All countries have their own talented lawyers, prosecutors and judges, who can hear these cases and try anyone committing violations. For the purpose of achieving peace, domestic law should apply if it can be done in compliance with international standards. This is important for future reconciliation and could be applied in the Ukrainian context. But justice is not something that can be accomplished quickly; it can take years. In the case of the former Yugoslavia, the conflict took place in the early 90s, but those who committed violations are still being convicted for acts carried out twenty years ago. Just a few months ago, the first verdict convicting two individuals of genocide in Cambodia for violations committed in the 70s was delivered. In this sense, IHL violations trigger individual criminal responsibility. If you are a commander, and it is you who gives an unlawful order, it is not the entire state that takes the responsibility, it is you as an individual. 

Do you see any differences in conflict in Ukraine compared to other countries?  

– I think every conflict is different. Ukraine is a medium-income country with a high level of education among the population. The armed forces, civilian servants, and communities are highly educated, so they can understand what International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is. They also realize how many of their rights are being violated. In other conflicts, people don’t necessarily know their rights. I would say that this makes our work easier in Ukraine, because people are aware of it and can support our work more easily than in other countries. What is also very positive is that the government of Ukraine recognizes  the importance of  applying IHL. This is therefore a very positive way to protect the civilian population.  

But at the same time, that could create some kind of a gap. The Russia-backed terrorists from DPR/LPR are not a recognized state, so they are not obliged to apply IHL. 

– In an armed conflict everyone has to respect IHL regardless of their status; this applies to all parties to conflict. This is not an argument to say they are legitimized or not legitimized. Everyone has obligations under IHL. 

Who is responsible for violations of IHL in Eastern Ukraine?

– Many organizations are monitoring the situation and this is being done quite well. We are not here to identify who is breaching the law. It is a war, and in war there are always violations of the laws. Rather than naming the perpetrators, let’s try to focus on finding the way to avoid future violations. Our role is not to name and shame. We just talk to the armed entities and we explain and remind them what the rules mandate and how they can enforce the law without them thinking that by doing so they are weaker or are losing something. We tell them why the law is important for the civilian population, for the armed fighters, for prisoners and the wounded. The added value for that is that they then amend their practices and follow the law. They need to understand that respecting the law doesn’t make them weaker or look bad, on the contrary it actually gives them more pride, honor and shows professionalism. 

Do you see understanding of that in the Ukrainian army?

– Yes, definitely.

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And on the other side?

I think that if you take the time to explain what IHL is about, any person who has been fighting could benefit from this, in terms of acknowledging the right to self-defense, the protection of civilians, and future criminal procedures. Everyone can understand why IHL matters.

Civilians in occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions are often forced to take part in different political events like demonstrations or elections to create nice picture for local media. Sometimes they have no permission to leave the occupied territories. The same goes for occupied Crimea, where the Russian FSB is harassing Crimean Tatars. How can we classify such actions?

– Basic human rights apply even in a situation of armed conflict. All these fundamental rights are still valid. No one should be forced to participate in meetings, be displaced or forced to stay, unless it is for justified security reasons. But I’m not in a position to qualify these actions. There are many international organizations, international tribunals, academics and lawyers, among others, which are assessing these specific cases. Of course, all those cases are subjects of long debates and as a neutral and impartial international organization we will not enter into these discussions. This is quite a political issue and I’m here only for impartial humanitarian purposes.  



Ms Marie Lequin, Head of Region, Geneva Call, for the Eurasia. She currently has the overall responsibilities for the operations of Geneva Call in Afghanistan, Myanmar, the Philippines and Ukraine. Prior to join Geneva Call in 2014, she worked as country manager non-governmental and international organizations in Central and West Africa and the Middle East. Her thematic experience covers the prevention of mass-violence and promotion of human rights and International Humanitarian Law in conflict affected- and transitioning countries.  She held various positions, among others Head of Communications for UNICEF in Central African Republic, and Country Director for Search for Common Ground in the Democratic Republic of Congo for several years. She holds a post-graduate diploma in broadcast journalism from Westminster University, UK.  

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