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.

Vital law will help defend Crimean Tatars and torpedo Russia's justification for annexing Crimea

Halya Coynash

Protesters bearing the Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar flags in early 2014 Photo Reuters

A crucial draft Law on Indigenous Peoples was tabled in parliament by President Volodymyr Zelensky on 18 May.  Adoption of Draft Law No. 5506 is, as stated in the President’s submission, urgent, and among those calling on legislators to move swiftly is Anton Korynevych, the President’s Representative on Crimea, who stresses the role the bill can play in defending the rights of Crimean Tatars.  The latter are suffering particularly harsh repression in Russian-occupied Crimea, and the law can also be seen as an important step towards de-occupation of Crimea. 

President Zelensky announced the move on 18 May in an address to the nation on the anniversary of Stalin’s 1944 Deportation of the entire Crimean Tatar people from their homeland.  The Deportation is recognized as an act of genocide in Ukraine, and Zelensky spoke of all Ukrainians being Crimean Tatar on this day.

The address had elements of PR in it and the list of what has been achieved so far in the President’s first two years in office would certainly be shorter than the number of promises which have yet to be fulfilled.  Nonetheless, the draft Law on Indigenous Peoples is a major step, and all efforts are now needed to ensure that the Verkhovna Rada does, as Zelensky says, consider and adopt the bill as soon as possible.  

However swiftly it gets passed, it will still be seriously belated.  According to Article 11 of Ukraine’s Constitution, “the State promotes …. the development of the ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious identity of all indigenous peoples and national minorities of Ukraine.”  This is all very well, however indigenous peoples are only mentioned in two other places, most importantly in Article 92 which stipulates that the rights of indigenous peoples and national minorities are determined exclusively by the laws of Ukraine.

For 25 years, the commitment towards Ukraine’s indigenous peoples remained at the level of fine-sounding words, with no laws providing definition of indigenous peoples and guaranteeing the real observance of their rights.  It was only on 20 March 2014, i.e. after Russia’s invasion and ‘annexation’ of Crimea that the Verkhovna Rada even formally recognized the Crimean Tatars as an indigenous people of Crimea.   The Resolution on the Statement of Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada regarding guarantees to the Crimean Tatar people within the Ukrainian State repeats the Constitutional guarantees regarding promotion of “the development of the ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious identity”, but specifically names the Crimean Tatars as indigenous people, as well as mentioning national minorities of Ukraine.  The document does not mention the other two (very small) indigenous peoples of Crimea: the Karaits and Krymchaks.  It recognizes the Mejlis as the executive body of the Qurultay of the Crimean Tatar people, and the Qurultay as the highest Crimean Tatar representative body. 

This, however, was a resolution, not a law, one that merely instructed the Cabinet of Ministers “to urgently submit draft laws, normative-legal acts” on defining and fixing the status of the Crimean Tatars as indigenous people of Ukraine. 

Considering the speed with which Russia has carried out its policy of repression, in which Crimean Tatars have been particularly persecuted, it is frustrating that the bill has only now appeared (and that a previous bill on the status of the Crimean Tatar people, tabled in 2017, was never adopted).

Eskender Bariev, Head of the Crimean Tatar Resource Centre and member of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, is broadly positive about draft law No. 5506, and notes that it is in keeping with international standards.

An indigenous people of Ukraine is defined as “an autochthonous ethnic community formed on the territory of Ukraine and having its own language and culture; having traditional, social, cultural and representative bodies; identifying itself as an indigenous people of Ukraine; constituting an ethnic minority within its [Ukraine’s] population; and not having its own state formation beyond Ukraine”.

According to this definition, the three indigenous peoples of Ukraine are the Crimean Tatars; the Karaits and the Krymchaks.   The bill guarantees these indigenous peoples collective and individual enjoyment of all cultural, education, linguistic and other rights as per Ukraine’s Constitution and legislation; all human rights as per general international rights documents and in accordance with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.   

The bill also defines the legal status of representative bodies of indigenous peoples, including the issue of their representation in the Verkhovna Rada and internationally. It will thus clearly indicate the representative nature of both the Mejlis and Qurultay.  Within a month of the pseudo-referendum and annexation, Russia began persecuting first individual Crimean Tatar leaders, such as Mustafa Dzhemilev and the current Head of the Mejlis, Refat Chubarov, then the First Deputy Head of the Mejlis, Akhtem Chiygoz.  It also banned the Mejlis as supposedly ‘extremist’, and has, for the last four years, ignored an express order from the UN’s International Court of Justice to withdraw the ban.  

Ukraine has now (also belatedly) joined the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  This specifically prohibits any military actions or bases, or occupation without the consent of the indigenous people, as provided by their representative assembly. 

Baziev calls the new bill an important step that the Crimean Tatar people have been seeking for nearly 30 years.

“I think that for Ukraine which is in a state of war, it is extremely important to regulate this issue through legislation. It is important both from the point of view of image, and in order to send a message to Crimean Tatars that their future and the implementation of their collective rights can only be in the independent legal democratic European state named Ukraine. 

This will be an important message for the struggle of people for Ukraine in conditions of occupation”.

It is no accident that Ukraine’s Day of Crimean Resistance to Russian Aggression is marked on 26 February, the anniversary of the huge demonstration called by the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people on 26 February 2014 to prevent Russia and its puppets from staging an effective coup in Crimea.  Had it not been for the demonstration that day, Russia might well have succeeded in presenting its annexation as a vote by the Crimean parliament to change Crimea’s status.  The failure of this plan prompted Moscow to order the deployment of Russian soldiers early the next morning.  Despite little will from the international community to take real measures against Russia, the involvement of Russian military made sanctions and international refusal to recognize the land-grab inevitable.  

While the targeting of Crimean Tatars is probably partly revenge for foiling Moscow’s plans, there is another reason. It is the main indigenous people of Crimea who fundamentally undermine Moscow’s excuse for invading and annexing Crimea.   While Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed that “the Crimeans” voted (in the pseudo-referendum of 16 March 2014, ‘observed’ by Russia’s neo-Nazi, far-right and other pro-Kremlin friends), it is only the Crimean Tatar people who have the right to self-determination and who have unambiguously expressed their identity as part of Ukraine. 

See also: The Kremlin hires academics to deny Crimean Tatars their rights


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