Russia’s war on Ukraine could work to mask the genocide it is in reality waging against the Ukrainian people – and hinder Ukraine’s allies from fulfilling their responsibility to prevent further atrocities.

“If most people understand there’s a war going on, do they also understand that there is a genocide going on?” said Kristina Hook, an expert on Ukraine-Russia relations and mass atrocity prevention, as well as assistant professor of conflict management at Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia (US).

Hook, who has conducted extensive fieldwork in Ukraine since 2015, is the principal author of “The Russian Federation’s Escalating Commission of Genocide in Ukraine: A Legal Analysis,” published in July 2023 by the New Lines Institute and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, both of which have researched the Rohingya and Uyghur genocides in depth.

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The report followed a May 2022 analysis issued by the two organizations concluding that Russia had breached Article II and Article III (c) of the Genocide Convention, thereby triggering the duty of the 153 nations party to the document (including Russia, which acceded under the Soviet Union) to prevent and punish genocide.

Hook told Kyiv Post that under Article III (c), “the convention also prohibits direct and public incitement to genocide,” adding that “the risk of genocide is enough to trigger the duty to prevent.”

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She pointed to the work of US-based journalist Julia Davis, founder of the Russian Media Monitor, who regularly provides English translations of Russian state broadcasts in which propagandists such as Margarita Simonyan and Vladimir Solovyov call for the complete destruction of Ukraine and Ukrainians – even as they deny the existence of Ukrainian identity and sovereignty.

“It’s very hard for me to see how anybody could make a case that the risk of genocide has not been triggered and hasn’t been triggered since (our) first report,” said Hook.

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The convention itself – which was adopted in 1948, and which entered into force in 1951 – has a “central duty of… the prevention of genocide,” not simply the post-fact punishment of those who commit the crime, said Hook.

She also stressed that fulfilling the obligations of the Genocide Convention “is not just a moral commitment or a UN resolution.”

“This is a legally binding document that… 153 countries have ratified or acceded to,” she said. “And that I think is so important for the general public to understand, because when it’s ratified or acceded, it means that, for example, we in the United States have taken that into our domestic legislature, debated, and passed it. We codified it into our own law. And so it’s not just a nice thing we should do. It is a legal obligation.”

Hook said that while “there’s all this kind of technocratic language about the rules-based international order,” the Genocide Convention is the very foundation of international human rights law.”

“And if you begin to sort of pull away those bricks right there at the foundation by not upholding it, then it’s going to have a ripple effect across a wide variety of human rights issues that are built on top of the architecture,” said Hook.

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Failure to recognize Russia’s genocidal aims distorts the compelling reasons for providing aid to Ukraine, Hook said.

“Some of the problematic media headlines on Ukraine, ones that maybe say, ‘Is the US doing too much? Is the international community doing too much?’… can lean into victim blaming,” she told Kyiv Post. “If you take out the word ‘war’ and substitute ‘genocide,’ it’s a totally different picture, and it’s an accurate picture of what’s happening.”

Hook said that some of Ukraine’s supporters in the international community have implemented “policies that are focused on holding back the Russian army from Kyiv or… on avoiding additional Ukrainian land being taken by Russia.”

While Moscow clearly seeks territorial expansion, viewing Russia’s decade-long invasion of Ukraine through the “genocidal lens … causes you to remember that Moscow … is also quite content with this ongoing daily campaign to ravage and destroy Ukraine through this daily barrage of missile attacks and shelling, through the murder of influential Ukrainians, through this continual daily destruction of so many features of Ukrainian life,” said Hook. “And I think that is part of its genocidal plan to destroy Ukraine, to burden its recovery.”

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Hook said that aspect of Russia’s “daily, unanswered, destructive acts” is “largely going unaddressed in a sufficient way.”

At the same time, Hook said, there is “actually a hunger for the public to understand the context of these atrocities.”

Based on conversations with Ukrainian colleagues over the years, Hook said that until recently, “Ukraine was missing from people’s mental maps in really profound ways.”

Now, however, “we’re having these deeper conversations of Russian imperialism, of Russia being able to control the global narrative and overshadow the voices of Ukrainians speaking about their own experiences,” said Hook, stressing the need to do “everything we can … to elevate the voices of our Ukrainian colleagues in a variety of field and of impacted Ukrainians.”

Hook said she remains hopeful that informed citizens in democratic societies can help to stop Russia’s genocide in Ukraine.

“That’s why public education is important, just making sure people have the facts in front of them and then trusting them to do the right thing,” she said. “You can call your congressman, you can make a small donation. You can write your local newspaper and have a letter featured in your local newspaper to the editor. All of these things are a part of holding the policy and political process to account. And I have seen it work.”

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“Our voices do matter,” she said. “We are never powerless, even against things that look like big evil.”

The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.

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