can we speak of a “genocide” committed by the Russian army in Ukraine, as Volodymyr Zelensky says?

“These are war crimes and it will be recognized by the world as genocide”† Two days after the discovery of countless corpses of civilians on the streets of Boutcha, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky went to this suburb of Kiev on Monday, April 4 to denounce the actions of the Russian soldiers there, discovered after the recapture of the city by Ukrainian troops. The head of state used the word, serious and full of history, of “genocide”.

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Kiev already used this term to refer to the murderous siege of Mariupol. After the discovery of the horrific images of Boutcha and other martyr towns, the accusation changed. Especially Spain and Poland have taken over. But others have avoided it, such as United States President Joe Biden, who, when asked about the term, “genocide”prefer that of “war crimes”† Franceinfo answers the questions raised by this debate.

A clearly defined crime…

The Crime of Genocide was created in 1948 by a UN treaty, and its definition has not changed since then. It denotes certain acts (mainly murders) committed in “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, any national, ethnic, racial or religious group”

This narrow definition therefore excludes many scenarios. “A genocide cannot target a political or cultural group”, explains Yann Jurovics, lecturer in public law at the University of Paris-Saclay, who collaborated with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). While some jurists believe that a term is necessary to denote the eradication of a culture, it does not fall within the range generally accepted today.

Furthermore, it is necessary to prove “a policy of destroying the group as such simply because it exists”. Unlike, for example, massacres that would aim to conquer an area, the jurist explains: “In this case the motive is not the hatred of the other”† On the other hand, there is no minimum number of casualties, as long as it is possible to prove that the goal is to wipe out the targeted population.

The genocides whose recognition leads to consensus can be counted on the fingers of one hand, Yann Jurovics recalls: the genocide of the Armenians from 1915, that of the Jews from September 1941 and that of the Tutsis from April 1994. , a nation of Namibia, by Germany from 1904: if “We are missing elements from a legal point of view” to decide more than a century later, Germany recognized it in 2015.

… but which does not correspond to the Ukrainian context

Various elements of a genocide, as we know them, are absent from the situation in Ukraine, in the eyes of Yann Jurovics. The perpetrators of genocide, intent on exterminating the group they target, “attack on everyone they meet”. This is not what appears to have happened in Boutcha, where many of the victims were clearly civilians who were arbitrarily executed, but where other residents saved their lives and testify today. The number of victims runs into the hundreds, but the Russian army has not wiped out the entire population of this city of 37,000 inhabitants.

Although the Russian troops besieged certain cities, they did not “prevented all Ukrainians from leaving”, another aspect that would otherwise help the will to spare no one. There is also nothing to suggest existence “murder centers”† And the Russian army does not specifically target women and children, priority targets during genocides, because the target is then “definitely destroy the group”decrypts Yann Jurovics.

In a very shared post on Twitter (in English), on Monday, another genocide expert, historian and political scientist Eugene Finkel, of Johns Hopkins University, in the United States, said he was convinced of the existence of a genocide, particularly after the publication of an article by the official Russian office Ria Novosti. Published on Sunday and summarized in English by a Belarusian journalistthis text defends a very broad view of what Russia describes as “denazification” Ukraine, an intention repeatedly asserted by Vladimir Putin: all Ukrainians who took up arms must be eliminated, and the majority of the Ukrainian population supports the Nazis, the state press body wrote in particular. “One of the most explicit statements I have ever seen with the intent to destroy a national group”says Eugene Finkel, Israeli herself, but born in Ukraine.

But here, too, the lawyer Yann Jurovics disagrees with this analysis: Russian discourse is not aimed at “a biological group”but supporters of a political idea (real or not). “The simple test, to determine whether there is genocide, is to ask yourself whether the victim has a choice. For example, a Tutsi can no longer choose not to be a Tutsi anymore.”, he explains. The discourse of Russian power, on the other hand, leaves Ukrainians with the choice to give up their defense of the country’s independence and national identity. “In practice it is a very limited choice”the lawyer recognizes. But he distinguishes the Russian power discourse from the genocidal discourse, “which would link political thought to a biological criterion”

Other qualifications possible

Joe Biden demanded a war crimes trial on Monday, a qualification that is easier to determine. Attacks on civilians in particular are war crimes, and they have been numerous and documented since the beginning of the Russian invasion in late February, both in Boutcha and Mariupol or Kharkov.

Crime against humanity is another possible qualifier. It denotes, according to Yann Jurovics, “a policy of deprivation of fundamental rights against individuals because of their belonging to an identity”

“If the Russian power attacks civilians in the context of an armed conflict, that is a war crime. If the population is targeted because they are Ukrainian, then it is a crime against humanity.”

Yann Jurovics, lecturer in public law and former lawyer at the International Criminal Court


However, it must be established that the actions of the Russian army are the result of a coordinated policy, explains this specialist. “It’s hard without written evidence, and confessions almost never exist”he warns. But the repetition of certain methods can make it possible to establish it: “If we realize that the Russian army is leaving a mass grave in all the cities it occupied, then it could be a sign of a policy that has been decided at a higher level.” The International Criminal Court (ICC) has already opened an investigation into all acts committed in Ukraine in early March, even though Vladimir Putin is unlikely to ever be tried.

“A crime against humanity is no less or more serious than genocide”, also remembers Yann Jurovics. For lawyers, these two crimes describe different situations. “But the label of ‘genocide’ is sometimes invoked because there is the impression of a hierarchy” in horror, of which it would be the final stage. The use of this term, rightly or wrongly, is understandable at a time when it comes to forcing the international community to respond. But the lawyer remembers “that there has never been a military intervention to stop a genocide, for example in Rwanda”