Russian leaders could face indictments for war crimes committed against the Ukrainian people, the EU’s crisis management and humanitarian aid Commissioner Janez Lenarčič said in an interview with EURACTIV.
Lenarčič called out Russia on the brutality of its attacks, and warned that “our fear is that this brutal onslaught will get even more brutal and we have to be ready”.
“This entirely military attack, this entire onslaught on a sovereign independent Ukraine by the Russian forces is a gross violation of international law, of the UN charter and so on,” he said.
“On top of that what we see clearly are violations of international humanitarian law; the rules of war. These rules say that you must not attack civilians, you must not attack civilian centres, you must not bomb indiscriminately urban centres. You must provide for humanitarian access. These are all norms of international humanitarian law, and we see them all violated.”
“Yes, the time of reckoning should come, and I understand that the prosecutor’s office of the International Criminal Court is already looking at the case of Ukraine,” the commissioner concluded.
Karim Khan, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, has said he will begin a war crimes investigation as “rapidly as possible”.
A resolution is currently being prepared by France to the United Nations on the humanitarian catastrophe and possible war crimes. “I hope that the international community sends a very clear message,” said Lenarčič .
“We see what is going on, and we know about the conduct of the Russian forces, so we have reason to believe that there must be a strong message.”
In the meantime, the EU’s focus is on coordinating the humanitarian efforts of national governments and working with the UN to beef up the rapidly expanding humanitarian effort.
“The response of EU member states has been remarkable,” said Lenarčič, pointing out that 24 member states have already announced their plans to provide aid. “The massive response by member states shows the solidarity with Ukraine,” he added.
The EU executive expects to see at least 4 million refugees from Ukraine, and the commissioner told EURACTIV that several member states have made requests for financial assistance to help them provide refugees with temporary shelter and medical aid and equipment
On Wednesday, EU Home Affairs ministers are expected to adopt the temporary protection directive from 2001 which caters for a sudden large influx of refugees.
Although most accounts have indicated that border officials at Ukraine’s neighbours have welcomed the refugees, there have been reports that African nationals had been prevented from leaving Ukraine at border points, prompting the African Union to state that “reports that Africans are singled out for unacceptable dissimilar treatment would be shockingly racist and in breach international law.”
The allegations have been dismissed as ‘fake news’ and Russian disinformation by Polish MEPs.
“I am not in a position to corroborate those reports, but what I can say that there is no place for discrimination for people who seek to flee and seeking refuge in Europe from the war in Ukraine,” Lenarčič told EURACTIV.
“There should be zero discrimination of any kind, on the basis of skin colour, or status. I expect all member states, especially those neighbouring Ukraine, to fully respect their international humanitarian obligations,” he added.
“Coordination is always a challenge especially when you have a crisis of such proportions but we have some very effective mechanisms in place,” said the commissioner, pointing to the EU’s civil protection mechanism, which is “part of the Commission that never sleeps”.
“The beauty is that it is demand driven, so that any country in the world can ask for assistance and specify exactly what it needs,” says Lenarčič, adding that the EU executive has already received “long lists of requests from Ukraine, Moldova and a couple of member states and we are currently organising a response.”
But the need for aid continues to grow rapidly. The United Nations is expected to host a virtual pledging conference for humanitarian aid for Ukraine in the coming days. Although the evolving nature of the Russian invasion makes it difficult for officials to calculate how much aid will be required, estimates on the size of funding needed at the conference range from $1.4 billion to over $2 billion, though the sum is likely to grow rapidly as it is possible that the number of people affected by the invasion will reach 18 million.
The Center for Global Development has estimated that hosting and integrating Ukrainian refugees could cost host nations an estimated $30 billion in the first year alone.
Lenarčič said that the Commission unveiled its €90 million aid pledge at the weekend to help “prepare member states for what is coming…and have some funding ready to pledge”. He emphasised that the EU has been funding humanitarian programmes in Ukraine since 2014.
[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]