European Rights Court Takes Up Russian Annexation of Crimea

Europe’s human rights court found it has jurisdiction to hear a case brought by Ukraine over Russia’s annexation of its Crimean Peninsula.

In this March 2014 photo, a Ukrainian man stands in protest in front of gunmen in unmarked uniforms on the outskirts of Sevastopol, Crimea. (AP Photo/Andrew Lubimov, File)

STRASBOURG, France (CN) — The European Court of Human Rights said Thursday it will take up Ukraine’s complaint asserting Russia committed human rights abuses during the 2014 annexation of Crimea. 

The Strasbourg-based court found that it has partial jurisdiction to decide if Russia has detained civilians, harassed religious leaders, unlawfully seized property and established an illegal border on the Black Sea peninsula that is part of Ukraine but currently occupied by Russia. 

Reading the decision aloud Thursday morning, Presiding Judge Robert Spano said the rights court “dismisses the respondent government’s preliminary objection that” Ukraine’s complaint does not meet the court’s requirements.  

Both Russia and Ukraine are signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights, the treaty which created the court in 1953. The convention protects the political and civil rights of citizens and residents in the 47 member states. 

Kyiv accuses Moscow of more than a dozen violations of the convention, ranging from unlawfully detaining Ukrainians to suppressing the Ukrainian language at schools. Russia argues that it only exercised jurisdiction in Crimea after residents voted in a referendum to split from Ukraine. The vote, however, was widely seen as rigged.  

In hearings in 2019, Russia argued the complaint was politically motivated and there was no proof of systemic oppression.

“Ukraine has not offered any evidence that there has been a coordinated effort, only examples of miscellaneous crimes,” Michael Swainston of Brick Court Chambers, representing Russia, told the court. 

But the 17-judge panel rejected those arguments and sided with Ukraine on Thursday, agreeing to hear the case.

“There is sufficient evidence for the court to conclude that during the relevant period [Russia] exercised effective control over Crimea,” the ruling states.  

The court pointed to remarks made by Russian President Vladimir Putin that the Russian government wanted to return Crimea to Russia and that Russian forces had disarmed Ukrainian soldiers there. 

Disputes between countries are rare at the Court of Human Rights. Only 27 have been brought in the court’s nearly 70-year history. There are currently 11 pending before the court, half of which are against Russia.

Ukraine has filed four complaints alleging human rights violations related to the Russian annexation of Crimea and there are more than 7,000 individual complaints against Russia over the conflict that are also pending. 

Thursday’s ruling joined two of Ukraine’s complaints. The second alleges Russia transferred detainees, mostly captured Ukrainian soldiers and their families, from Crimea to Russian territory.  

But the court held there was insufficient evidence to move forward with some of Ukraine’s other complaints, including over the detention of international journalists and confiscation of Ukrainian soldiers’ property.

Russian aggression in Crimea has been brought before international courts across the continent. The United Nations’ high court, the International Court of Justice, is set to rule later this year on a Ukraine complaint alleging Russia financed rebel terrorist groups and discriminated against an ethnic group in the annexed Crimea region. In a separate case before a U.N. tribunal, Ukraine seeks to force Russia to return captured soldiers and ships seized by the Russian navy. 

Ukraine isn’t the only country that’s taken Russia to the Court of Human Rights. Hearings are set for September in a case brought by the Netherlands over the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014. A Dutch criminal trial against three Russians and one Ukrainian for the murder of all 298 people on board the passenger jet started in March. 

The Strasbourg-based rights court will now move forward with hearings on the merits of the case.

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