war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

The Kremlin hires academics to deny Crimean Tatars their rights

Halya Coynash

Russia’s repressive measures against Crimean Tatars are probably not surprising since it is this main indigenous people of Crimea who most dangerously undermine Moscow’s excuses for invading and annexing Crimea.  It is the Crimean Tatar people who have the right to self-determination and who have unambiguously expressed their identity as part of Ukraine.  As well as persecution and the outlawing of the Mejlis, or self-governing body of the Crimean Tatar people, the Kremlin has also focused on denial, with President Vladimir Putin’s Administration even commissioning an Academy of Sciences study aimed at ‘proving’ that the Crimean Tatars cannot be considered an indigenous people. 

Before considering the ‘study’, it is useful to consider why Russia is trying this on.  The definition of ‘indigenous peoples’ has changed significantly since the middle of last century, and one of the problems has been on agreeing a universal definition of the kind of features that identify an indigenous people. Russia is concentrating on a definition which effectively narrows the term to refer only to the original inhabitants of an area, especially those following their traditional lifestyle. 

That definition, however, has been significantly expanded, and is best set out in the International Labour Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention from 1989.   While Article 1.a is about tribal peoples in independent countries and basically corresponds to the above-mentioned concept, 1b and Article 1 § 2 are significantly broader and have clear relevance for the Crimean Tatar people.

Article 1.b  peoples in independent countries who are regarded as indigenous on account of their descent from the populations which inhabited the country, or a geographical region to which the country belongs, at the time of conquest or colonisation or the establishment of present state boundaries and who, irrespective of their legal status, retain some or all of their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions.

2. Self-identification as indigenous or tribal shall be regarded as a fundamental criterion for determining the groups to which the provisions of this Convention apply.

This international document and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples stress the right of indigenous peoples to self-determination via their representative assembly (for example, the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people).  The UN Declaration also specifically prohibits any military actions or bases, or occupation without the consent of the representative assembly of the specific indigenous people. 

The Russian Federation can and has chosen not to ratify these documents, but it cannot change their substance – nor their direct application to the case of the Crimean Tatar people in occupied Crimea.

This is not, however, for want of trying as the Kremlin-commissioned study carried out by Sergey Sokolovskiy from the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology shows.  Sokolovsky has gone into manipulative overdrive to demonstrate that the Crimean Tatars should be considered a national minority, not an indigenous people.  .  

Sokolovsky asserts that the concept of indigenous people is “used in the political discourse of various parties and movements” but that it has no legal validity.  In order to ‘prove’ this, he reverts to outmoded definitions, and claims that, according to UN organizations and Russian legislation under their auspices, indigenous groups are up to 50 thousand people and lead a traditional lifestyle.  He also uses the argument that a people cannot be considered indigenous if there was a historical period where they were dominant. 

All of this purportedly demonstrates that the Crimean Tatar people cannot be called an indigenous people.  Sokolovsky goes even further, claiming that: “The use of protective measures envisaged by the status of indigenous peoples will lead in the given situation to social injustice, separating out Crimean Tatars from the surrounding rural population whose type of economy and occupation differ little from those of the Crimean Tatars”.

Sokolovsky’s document contains many other insulting assertions.  It is impossible that the academic was unaware what nonsense he was writing, but presumably understood the conclusions that were required of him.   

Natalya Belitser, from the Pylyp Orlyk Institute for Democracy is in no doubt as to why Russia is so set on denying Crimean Tatars their status as indigenous people. The latter implies their right to self-determination on their historical homeland and this gives them, and Ukraine in general, a powerful argument in seeking de-occupation of Crimea

There are many critical words that can be addressed at all Ukraine’s governments for their failure to address the problems of the Crimean Tatar people who began returning from forced exile after Ukraine gained independence.  It was only after Russia’s invasion that Ukraine finally recognized the Crimean Tatars as an indigenous people, and joined the UN Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples.  It is still moving much too slowly towards recognizing Crimea as a national-territorial autonomy of the Crimean Tatar People within Ukraine.  A year has passed  since a bill on this was tabled in Ukraine’s parliament.  At the time, Mejlis leader Refat Chubarov expressed the view that the law would help Ukraine take more effective action to end Russian occupation and to counter any suggestion, for example, of a ‘deal’ between the USA and Russia, involving Crimea being tacitly ‘handed’ to Russia.  The draft bill, he said, “puts an end to any discussion regarding the status of the peninsula which is part of Ukraine since Crimean’s indigenous people have defined themselves as part of a single Ukrainian state”.  

A particularly damning assessment of Russia’s position with respect to Crimea as been provided by Bill Bowring, Professor of Law at the UK’s Birkbeck College.  In a text, entitled ‘The fate of the Crimean Tatars, Russia’s legal justification for annexation, and Pandora’s Box’*, Professor Bowring analyses and dismisses the position Russia has taken. 

He cites the claims made by Putin during his address regarding Crimean annexation on18 March 2014 and on other occasions, as well as the  “Legal arguments for Russia’s position on Crimea and Ukraine” published by the Permanent Delegation of the Russian Federation to UNESCO on 7 November 2014.   

“This official document asserted that there had been “…the implementation of the right to self-determination by the people of Crimea”. The referendum of 16 March, referred to below, was said to reflect “… the will of the people of Crimea.” There followed extensive references to international law and practice concerning the right of peoples to self-determination  …”

The document then asserts that “Crimea’s secession from Ukraine and its accession to Russia took place in extreme conditions of impossibility to implement the right to self-determination within the framework of Ukraine. These extreme conditions were exacerbated by the unlawful rise to power of those who do not represent the entire Ukrainian people. During its more than 20-year history as a part of Ukraine, the people of Crimea failed to realize their right to self-determination within the framework of this State.”

Professor Bowring is having none of this. 

It is my contention that there is only one people with a right to self-determination in Crimea, namely the Crimean Tatar people, who assert through their representative institutions, the Qurultay and Mejlis. the right to recognition as the main indigenous people of Crimea.

He believes that the above-quoted parts of Article 1 of the International Labour Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention “exactly fit the Crimean Tatar people”.

They fit the definition so well that it is disturbing how loath many official bodies are to use the correct terminology.  Bowling cites a detailed assessment of this made by Borys Babin and Anna Prikhodko, giving only a few examples where “international organisations including the United Nations have been very reluctant even to use the correct name of the “Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People”. 

There are cheering exceptions, for example, in two resolution from the European Parliament which clearly identify the Crimean Tatars as an indigenous people (On the Human Rights Situation in Crimea in particular of the Crimean Tatars (Feb. 2016) and on the Crimean Tatars (12 May 2016). . 

With Russia only mounting its offensive against the Crimean Tatar people and their representative assembly, it is surely time for all international bodies to clearly state, like Professor Bowring that “the status of the Crimean Tatars as an indigenous people, by far the most numerous, is beyond doubt.“


*   Bill Bowring “Who are the "Crimean People” or “People of Crimea”? The fate of the Crimean Tatars, Russia’s ‘legal justification’ for annexation, and Pandora’s Box”, chapter in Sergey Sayapin and Evhen Tsybulenko, (Editors):  The Use of Force against Ukraine and International Law: Jus Ad Bellum, Jus In Bello, Jus Post Bellum

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