Ukraine on Tuesday called Russia a terrorist state at the top UN court, as hearings began in a case over Moscow’s backing of pro-Russian separatists blamed for shooting down Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 in 2014.
It was the first time lawyers for Ukraine and Russia met at the International Court of Justice, also known as the World Court, since Moscow launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Legal teams with dozens of representatives were sent by each side.
A panel of 16 judges at the ICJ began hearing Ukraine’s claim that Moscow violated a UN anti-terrorism treaty by equipping and funding pro-Russian forces who shot down the jetliner, killing all 298 passengers and crew.
In the same claim, Ukraine has also asked the Hague-based court to order Russia to halt discrimination against the Crimean Tatar ethnic group in the Ukrainian peninsula, occupied by Russia in 2014.
In opening remarks, Ukrainian Ambassador-at-large Anton Korynevych commented on the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka hydroelectric dam hours earlier in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region. Kyiv says Russia blew up the dam; the Kremlin has blamed Ukraine.
“Russia cannot defeat us on the battle field, so it targets civilian infrastructure to try to freeze us into submission,” Korynevych told hearings, describing Russia’s actions as “the actions of a terrorist state.”
“Just today Russia blew up a major dam ... causing significant civilian evacuations, ecological damages and threatening the safety of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.”
Russia will have an opportunity to respond to Ukraine’s case on Thursday. Moscow has tried to get the case thrown out, arguing the court has no jurisdiction.
‘Cultural erasure’ of Crimean Tatars
Flight MH17 was shot down by a Russian-made missile on July 17, 2014 over pro-Russian separatist-held eastern Ukraine. Last November, a Dutch court convicted two Russians and a Ukrainian separatist in absentia for their role and sentenced them to life in prison. It found that Russia had “overall control” over the separatist forces.
A finding by the World Court that Russia equipped and funded rebels in eastern Ukraine responsible for the MH17 disaster would be a defeat for Moscow, and could boost legal claims from Ukraine and victims of the conflict for damages or reparations.
Russia boycotted hearings at the court in March 2022 that dealt with a request by Ukraine to impose emergency measures in another ICJ case, in which Kyiv is countering a Russian claim of genocide against Russian-speakers in Ukraine. Kyiv calls that a bogus justification for Russia’s invasion.
Ukraine’s Korynevych told the UN judges on Tuesday that after occupying Crimea, Russia “then engaged in a campaign of cultural erasure” against ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars.
Russia denies systematic human rights abuses in Ukrainian territory it occupies.
Rulings of the ICJ, the UN’s top court for disputes between states, are binding but have no enforcement mechanism.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is also the subject of an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court, also in The Hague, on charges of war crimes over forced deportations of Ukrainian children, which the Kremlin denies.