OPINION: Sweden understands that Ukraine needs the law as well as weapons

The decision of Swedish prosecutors to launch an investigation into Russian war crimes in Ukraine shows the country using international law as surprisingly effective tool, argues Olga Kuchmiienko, a Ukrainian lawyer based in Sweden.

OPINION: Sweden understands that Ukraine needs the law as well as weapons
Karim Khan, a prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, has announced an investigation against war crimes in Ukraine. Photo: International Criminal Court.

This week, people across the world have seen pictures of the horrible consequences of Russia’s war in Ukraine in the cities of Bucha, Irpin, and Hostomel, with cities destroyed, civilians killed and sexual violence committed against Ukrainian women.

Sweden has reacted immediately.

The Swedish Prosecution Authority has launched an investigation into war crimes with the aim of securing evidence that could be used in future legal proceedings, either in Sweden or in the International Criminal Court (ICC). In addition, Sweden’s Prime Minister, Magdalena Andersson, has pledged to provide financial support and legal expertise in a future ICC investigation.

“The terrible images of destruction and reported executions of civilians in Bucha, Ukraine in wake of Russian aggression are reminiscent of darkest scenes from European history,” she said in a tweet.

“Attacks against civilians, executions, and rape are war crimes,” tweeted Ann Linde, Sweden’s minister of foreign affairs. “Those responsible must be held to account.”

Sweden’s support for the ICC shows that supporting legal processes, as well as military and economic support, can be a way of countering Russian aggression. 

International law, which is often unsatisfyingly slow and frequently criticized for being toothless, has shown itself to be surprisingly effective.

Since the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of Eastern Ukraine in 2014, dozens of legal proceedings have been launched and are pending against Russia in international courts, alleging that, firstly, armed conflict between nations took place in Eastern Ukraine, and secondly, that Russia has had effective control over Crimea since 2014.

Yet Russia has made brazen attempts to assert that it is fully in compliance with the rules and norms of international law. 

Readers of The Local will hardly need reminding of the full-scale war Russia has been waging in Ukraine since 24 February 2022.

Russian actions against Ukraine represent an unprecedented violation of international law and human rights, including:

  • the invasion of Ukraine’s sovereign territory
  • the kidnapping and killing of civilians
  • the destruction of residential areas
  • the targeting of humanitarian corridors and of historical and cultural objects
  • and even the threat of nuclear weapons

Unfortunately, all these facts have been confirmed. 

These violations are so serious and so obvious that from the first weeks of the war, Russia has been the subject of several new proceedings in international courts.

Whereas typical processing times are measured in months or even years from the start of proceedings to a decision, in one example it took less than a week from the day Ukraine submitted its application for a court to reach an interim decision. 

So what are the main proceedings currently underway against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine?

1. International Court of Justice (“ICJ”).

On 26 February 2022, Ukraine filed a lawsuit against Russia at the ICJ under the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the “Genocide Convention”). On 16 March 2022, the ICJ ordered Russia to: i) immediately suspend the military operations it commenced on 24 February 2022 in Ukraine, and ii) ensure that nobody, including any military or irregular armed units, take any steps in furtherance of the military operations.

What does it mean? It means that ICJ is convinced that:

  • Russian troops are in the territory of Ukraine;
  • Russian troops initiated and are conducting prohibited military operations against Ukraine; and
  • Russian troops must leave the territory of Ukraine.

It goes without saying that Russia is currently in breach of the ICJ’s order.

2. International Criminal Court (“ICC”).

On 28 February 2022, the ICC prosecutor Karim A.A. Khan QC decided to investigate alleged Russian war crimes (targeting of civilians, infrastructure, or property) and crimes against humanity (widespread or systematic attacks directed against a civilian population) occurring in Ukraine. The ICC was spurred into action following referrals from ICC member states urging an investigation, with 41 member states submitting referrals as of 14 March 2022.

What does it mean? Almost 50 states have made referrals (including Sweden) to the ICC about allegations of the most serious violations of international law: war crimes and crimes against humanity.  

3. European Court of Human Rights (“ECHR”).

It took less than 24 hours for the ECHR to react, from the day Ukraine applied for help in relation to “massive human rights violations being committed by Russian troops in the course of the military aggression against the sovereign territory of Ukraine”.

On 1 March 2022, the ECHR confirmed that Russian military action gives rise to a real and continuing risk of serious violations of human rights, protected by the European Convention on Human Rights, in particular:

  • the right to life;
  • prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; and
  • right to respect for private and family life.

What does it mean? In less than 24 hours, the court’s judges concluded that Russia had started a military operation in Ukraine that violated basic human rights.

What else can be done?

International courts are starting legal proceedings in the most efficient ways, and Sweden is showing an example by providing strong support for Ukraine. But to prevent more crimes, more actions are needed, including but not limited to:

  1. Supporting, by all possible means, efforts to investigate and prosecute the ongoing crime of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
  2. Intensifying sanctions against Russia and Belarus, including but not limited to the disconnection of all Russian and Belarusian banks from SWIFT.
  3. Closing ports for Russia’s vessels or vessels hired by any Russian companies; prohibiting the leasing of vessels, providing crew services, and bunkering services to Russian entities or entities shipping goods purchased from Russian entities. 


Russian aggression against Ukraine has a long history and was previously considered to be simply “politics”. However, Russia’s invasion of 24th February 2022 marks a clear turning point.

It is now clear for everyone, from international legal authorities and governments to ordinary citizens with only a passing interest in politics.  Russia started an illegal war in Ukraine and is committing unprecedented violations of human rights. The second turning point is 3rd April 2022, when the world saw clear evidence of Russia committing serious war crimes against Ukrainians.

Ukrainians all over the world are grateful to Sweden and other nations for their assistance in our hour of need. Together we can stand against the most serious violations of human rights and international law. 

Olga Kuchmiienko, Ph.D.

Ukrainian citizen living in Sweden. Attorney-at-Law (Ukrainian qualified). Head of International Law Committee of Ukrainian Bar Association. Ukrainian National Bar Association Representative in Sweden


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OPINION: Racism doesn’t get much more obvious than Sweden’s refugee bias

When you look at Sweden's reception of Ukrainian refugees, it's clear that what was good enough for poor Muslims from Syria, is not considered good enough for white Christians from Ukraine, notes Stockholm University Professor Christian Christensen.

OPINION: Racism doesn't get much more obvious than Sweden's refugee bias

As thousands of Ukrainian refugees began to arrive in Sweden following the invasion by Russia, the headline of a recent opinion piece by the leader of Sweden’s far-right, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrat party spoke volumes: ‘There is a Difference Between Refugees and “Refugees”’

For Åkesson and his nationalist supporters, Ukrainian refugees are “real” refugees. They are from ”a Christian country with a culture that is more closely related” to that of Sweden, while refugees who escaped Syria and Afghanistan were framed as being made up of millions of backward, poorly-educated “professional migrants” (his term) devoid of European values and sensibilities.

With this backdrop, recent comments posted on Twitter by a municipal council member in Sweden’s second-largest city, Gothenburg, provided a disturbing insight into how politicians, not only the far-right but on all sides of the political spectrum, use different sets of standards when considering Ukrainian and Syrian refugees. And how the vision of refugees held by the Swedish far-right has bled into the Swedish political mainstream.

On May 5, Daniel Bernmar, the group leader for the opposition Left Party in the Gothenburg municipal council, sent a series of tweets in which he detailed how fellow council members expressed dismay over the poor services and paltry benefits available to refugees arriving from Ukraine. While on the surface an egalitarian position, the irony, Bernmar pointed out, was that the levels of financial support and services about which they were complaining were set by the very same group of politicians…when the arriving refugees were predominantly Syrian.

In other words, what the local politicians considered to be acceptable support for Syrians was now considered unacceptable support for Ukrainians.

Bernmar detailed a number of the specific concerns expressed by his colleagues.

Members of anti-immigration Sweden Democrats complained that the small amount of spending money given to Ukrainian refugees meant that they could not even afford to take local buses. Why, they asked, had the policy of allowing refugees to ride for free been scrapped? Others asked how without access to public transport Ukrainian refugees could be expected to take their children to school or look for work? And, in perhaps the most Swedish of issues, municipal councilors expressed concern that Ukrainian parents could not send children under the age of three to state-subsidized daycare.

Bernmar noted that he had “never before heard these parties or people address the unacceptable social or economic situation for refugees.” He then addressed the elephant in the room. The dismay expressed by colleagues over conditions facing refugees – conditions the same politicians approved when refugees were Syrian – was unsurprising, he wrote, given that they, “did not previously apply to white, Christian Europeans.”

These revelations should come as no surprise. While seemingly at odds with Sweden’s reputation for openness and egalitarianism, the fact is that political parties at both ends of the Swedish political spectrum have adopted increasingly aggressive anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. Yet, when structural discrimination is presented in such a transparent fashion, it is still jarring.

At the most fundamental level, the case demonstrates how perceptions of the value of human life and human dignity are shaped by ethnicity, religion, and nationality. What was good enough for poor Muslims from Syria just isn’t good enough for white, European Christians. Racism and ethnocentrism don’t come much clearer than that.

But this revelation cuts even deeper and wider. And it applies to nations beyond Sweden’s borders, where immigrants and refugees struggle to construct new futures. What is evident from the comments made by the local politicians in Gothenburg is that they are fully aware of the impact of their policies on the everyday lives of refugees, how the ability to participate in the workforce, for example, is dependent upon basics such as transportation and childcare. That “integration” isn’t just a question of some mythological will, but of available material resources.

To remember that with Ukrainians, but forget it with Syrians, is cynicism of the highest order. It is to amplify the smear that there is a difference between refugees and “refugees.”

Listen to a discussion on Sweden and immigration on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.