News & Commentary

Genocide report on Ukraine ‘worst news possible,’ says archbishop

People attend a 'Stop Genocide of Ukraine People' rally and protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Times Square in New York City April 9, 2022. U.S. Metropolitan Archbishop Borys Gudziak has called for renewed prayer, advocacy in support of Ukraine after recently released report finds Russia has breached all terms of 1948 Genocide Convention in its invasion of that nation. (OSV News photo/Jeenah Moon, Reuters)

(OSV News) — A new report on Russian atrocities in Ukraine is both “the worst possible news” and “welcome,” a Ukrainian Catholic archbishop told OSV News.

“The Russian Federation’s Escalating Commission of Genocide in Ukraine: A Legal Analysis” was released July 26 by the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, and the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights, a Montreal-based nonpartisan global coalition for human rights advocacy and justice.

The 57-page report, which follows a similar report jointly issued by the two organizations in May 2022, concludes that “the Russian Federation has not only committed but escalated its efforts to commit genocide” in Ukraine, wrote Azeem Ibrahim, senior director of the mass atrocities and law portfolio at New Lines, in the foreword to the document.

“It is ironic to welcome a report on genocide,” Metropolitan Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the U.S. said in an emailed statement to OSV News. “But it is good that the report is being made and it should be brought to the widest possible audiences.”

The report, covering the period Feb. 24, 2022, (the date of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine) through June 15 of this year, found that “an escalated pattern of systematic atrocities” by Russia in Ukraine constitutes a “violation of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.”

The 1948 Convention — ratified by 153 nations including Russia and the U.S. — defines genocide as any of five types of acts committed with the intent to destroy, either wholly or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

Those acts are killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm, deliberately inflicting conditions to physically destroy the group in whole or in part, imposing measures to prevent births, and forcibly transferring a group’s children to another group.

Russia has demonstrated “willful, systematic violations of all five prohibited acts” in the Genocide Convention, the report found.

Genocide — along with conspiracy to commit, direct and public incitement, attempted acts and complicity — is punishable under international law.

The Genocide Convention also imposes a legal obligation on ratifying states to prevent genocide, even beyond their borders, once they become aware of a serious risk for genocide. The New Lines/Raoul Wallenberg report found that the “threshold was found to have been exceeded” in its May 2022 report, and continues to be exceeded.

“It is incumbent upon all of us” to “stop the wave of genocide being perpetrated by the Russian invaders” in Ukraine,” said Archbishop Gudziak, urging “prayer, advocacy, engagement and help.”

The report highlighted Russian forces’ killing Ukrainian men, women and children through “summary executions, missile strikes, shelling, torture-induced deaths, targeting (of) evacuation caravans, and killing by omission.”

Since its February 2022 full-scale invasion, which continues attacks it initiated in 2014, Russia has killed more than 9,444 Ukrainian civilians and injured some 16,940, while committing close to 102,300 documented war crimes.

At least 2.5 million Ukrainians have been forcibly taken to the Russian Federation, and close to 19,600 children are being held in Russian “reeducation” camps, with the actual number for the latter feared to be much higher.

“Extensive, industrialized torture” as well as “widespread rape with extreme brutality and other forms of conflict-related sexual violence by Russian forces” have been documented throughout Ukraine, “across gender and vast age differences, from small children to the elderly,” said the report.

Specific forms of Russia’s torture and sexual violence against Ukrainians have included beatings, electrocution, forced nudity, gang rape, castration and genital mutilation, with victims taunted by Russian forces that they were undergoing “denazification” and purging of their Ukrainian identity, according to the report.

“Rape of parents in front of children or vice versa” has been documented, as has the case of a priest stripped naked, beaten and forced to parade through his village for an hour, said the report, noting that Russian forces committing atrocities have been decorated by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Sexual violence — documented to have been committed in some cases under direct order by Russian officers — also works to prevent births among Ukrainians, due to genital mutilation and psychological trauma, said the report.

Russia’s relentless shelling of civilian residences and infrastructure, reckless occupation of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, and widespread environmental damage to Ukraine through munitions, land mines and the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam all create conditions designed to destroy Ukrainians as a whole, said the report.

Russian state media has accelerated its incitement to genocide, said the report, with Kremlin media personalities calling for the wholesale extermination of Ukrainians, denouncing them as “bestial” while alternately declaring them Russian by nature. State media also relies on “accusation in a mirror,” a tactic whereby Russia accuses Ukraine of committing or planning atrocities for which Russia itself is responsible.

The report said the popular Russian phrase “we can do it again” has become a rallying cry for such crimes by Russia in Ukraine. Once a slogan for Russia’s commemorations of its World War II legacy, the phrase has evolved into “a jingoistic declaration that historical violence and patterns of atrocities can and should be carried out against Ukrainians,” said the report.

“The experience of genocide, unfortunately, in Ukraine is well known,” said Archbishop Gudziak, noting the term itself — a Greek and Latin compound for “race” and “killing” — was coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish attorney who had studied law in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.

Lemkin — who lost 49 members of his family, including his parents, in the Shoah (Holocaust) — is among the many genocide experts to have noted a long-running historical “pattern of persecution and repressions by Moscow authorities against Ukrainians,” said the report.

“If we go back 150 years, there was an attempt to abolish the Ukrainian language by outlawing all publications in Ukrainian,” said Archbishop Gudziak, referencing the 1863 Valuev Circular. Named for the tsarist official Petr Valuev, the directive banned the use of the Ukrainian language, which Valuev declared “has ever existed, does exist, and can ever exist.”

Between 1914 and 1950, “approximately 15 million people in Ukraine were killed or died an unnatural death because of wars, purges, and artificial famines” under Russian and Soviet repression, Archbishop Gudziak said.

The Holodomor, a 1932-1933 artificial famine created by Stalin in Ukraine that killed between 4 million and 7 million, was believed by Lemkin “to be a classic instance of Soviet genocide,” said the archbishop.

In addition, “the repression of artists, the political elite, and the Churches is deeply etched in the memory of all Ukrainians,” said Archbishop Gudziak.

From 2014 to 2021 alone, some 14,400 Ukrainians were killed and 39,000 injured in Russian attacks on Ukraine’s Donbas and Crimea regions, according to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“Every time in the last 300 years when there is a Russian occupation, the Ukrainian Catholic Church is banned. Currently, in the occupied territories of Ukraine, not a single Catholic priest is functioning, whether Roman Catholic or Eastern Catholic,” the archbishop said.

Mary Ellen O’Connell, professor of law and international peace studies at the University of Notre Dame, told OSV News in an email that “while there is likely a good case that Russia has breached the (Genocide) Convention, the more important focus now should be on the violation of the United Nations Charter prohibition on the use of force.”

As the founding document of the U.N., the charter specifies that all U.N. members “shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.”

“There is no doubt Russia has committed one of the most egregious breaches of the Charter since 1945,” said O’Connell. “That violation has led to all the human rights violations and war crimes that have followed.”

Russia claims the U.S. “also commits serious violations of the prohibition” with “ongoing drone strikes and commando operations in Syria, Somalia and Iraq,” she said, adding while “pointing to the law breach of another is never a defense … the U.S. should comply fully with the Charter.”

O’Connell also clarified that “Ukraine is fighting in compliance with the U.N. Charter and all states assisting Ukraine are in compliance, too.”

Regarding Russia’s breaches of the Genocide Convention, “the signs are clear,” said Archbishop Gudziak. “It is genocide, and it must be stopped. For the love of God, for the love of his children, please pray, advocate, stay informed, and help as much as you can. Please bring to the attention of your representatives your awareness of these genocidal crimes and your insistence that everything be done to stop them.”

By Gina Christian | OSV News