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Lawmakers attend a parliament session in Kiev, Ukraine December 21, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

(Kyiv) A bill adopted by Ukraine’s parliament on May 20, 2021, could help authorities prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity domestically, Human Rights Watch said today.

The law, On Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts on the Enforcement of International Criminal and Humanitarian Law, includes provisions on command responsibility, the statute of limitations for international crimes, and universal jurisdiction for international crimes. The president will need to sign the law before it enters into effect.

“The new law will fill a critical gap in Ukraine’s legislation,” said Liz Evenson, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “It gives Ukrainian authorities some of the legal tools needed for the effective prosecution of war crimes committed in eastern Ukraine.”

Crimes committed in the context of the armed conflict in Ukraine are currently classified under separate articles of Ukraine’s criminal code and are subject to statutes of limitations. Under international law, countries have the primary responsibility to investigate, prosecute, and punish those responsible for these crimes and provide redress to victims. The absence of domestic legislation has been one of the key barriers in domestic accountability efforts. Further revisions to the Criminal Procedural Code are most likely needed to permit the effective application of the new law.

In 2019, Ukraine took an important step by establishing a specialized Department for Supervision in Criminal Proceedings of the Crimes Committed in Armed Conflict. The bill aligning Ukraine’s national legislation with international law is another key step toward bolstering the ability of national authorities to build the legal framework necessary to support the effective domestic investigation and prosecution of international crimes, Human Rights Watch said.

Ukraine is not a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC), but it accepted the court’s jurisdiction over alleged crimes committed on its territory since November 2013, and in so doing, the obligation to cooperate with the ICC. In December, the ICC Office of the Prosecutor concluded its preliminary examination and announced that the criteria under the ICC’s founding treaty, the Rome Statute, had been met to open an investigation, but it has not yet requested permission from the judges to formally open an investigation. Because the ICC is a court of last resort, domestic investigations and prosecutions could complement those of the ICC.

The armed conflict in eastern Ukraine has taken a high toll on civilians, from threatening their physical safety to limiting access to food, medicines, adequate housing, and schools. In Russia-occupied Crimea, local authorities have continued to persecute Crimean Tatars and conscript males to serve in the Russian armed forces in violation of international humanitarian law.

“Bringing Ukraine’s national legislation in line with international criminal law and international humanitarian law could help bring justice to victims and accountability to those responsible for international crimes,” Evenson said. “It’s a further step to strengthening Ukraine’s commitment to the rule of law and respect for human rights and should be followed swiftly by joining the Rome Statute.”

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