PhD Oleksii Plotnikov describes in his new research how and why the Russian Federation is responsible for the minimum living standards of the population of Crimea

There is little doubt among the international community on a simple point that Crimea, including the City of Sevastopol (further collectively referred to as “Crimea”), are parts of Ukrainian territory occupied by the Russian Federation. Certain Russian legal scholars (not all of them) offered fanciful interpretations [for example, see: 1], including even claims of “poverty of international law” and calls for “pragmatic approach” [2], however, these rare voices are overwhelmed by a different and virtually unanimous position. Suffice to mention that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights [for example, 3], the PACE [4], and the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court [5] qualify the situation in Crimea as an ongoing occupation.

The occupation entails legal consequences for the occupying power both in respect of that power itself and in relation to the occupied territory. According to the 1974 General Assembly Resolution “Definition of Aggression”, military occupation, however temporary, or any annexation by the use of force of the territory of another State or part thereof qualifies as an act of aggression. The same Resolution provides that no territorial acquisition or special advantage resulting from aggression is or shall be recognized as lawful [6]. In other words, the obligation to end the occupation continues to exist regardless of the duration of occupation.

Equally important, the mere fact of occupation triggers application of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) that remains in force even in the absence of open hostilities. According to the Fourth Geneva Convention, it applies to all cases of partial or total occupation of the territory of a High Contracting Party, even if the said occupation meets with no armed resistance [7, Art. 2]. To this, the 1958 commentary adds that in the cases of occupation without resistance, the interests of protected persons “are, of course, just as deserving of protection as when the occupation is carried out by force” [8, p. 21]. Subject to the First Additional Protocol, the Geneva Conventions apply in the occupied territories until termination of the occupation [9, Art. 3].

In practical terms, these agreements, to which both Russia and Ukraine are parties, and which form a part of customary international law, will create obligations for the Russian Federation regarding the occupied territory and its population until the occupation ends. At that, the entire population of Crimea is regarded as individuals protected by IHL. Article 4 of the Fourth Geneva Convention provides that persons protected by the Convention are those who find themselves in the hands of a party to the conflict or occupying power, to which they are not nationals [8, Art. 4]. The formula of the Article poses another complicated question which is whether the residents of Crimea, who voluntarily acquired Russian citizenship in 2014, formally fall under the protection of the Convention. Yet this question goes far beyond the scope of this brief analysis, and therefore, for the purposes of this paper, all civilians residing in Crimea shall be viewed as a part of a general category of “civil population”, which is protected by the Fourth Geneva Convention, and the territory of Crimea shall be viewed as occupied in the sense of the IHL.

The obligations of the occupying power include, among other things, “the duty of ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population; it should, in particular, bring in the necessary foodstuffs, medical stores, and other articles if the resources of the occupied territory are inadequate” [8, Art. 55] and is obliged to ensure and maintain “the medical and hospital establishments and services, public health and hygiene in the occupied territory” [8, Art. 56]. This norm implies that the duty to satisfy the basic needs of the population of Crimea, including the delivery of food, water, and supply of electricity to medical establishments lies with the Russian Federation, while Ukraine is not obliged to ensure such supplies. Factually, Russia has an opportunity to deliver enough food and medicines to Crimea via a ferry line in Kerch as well as by maritime transport, therefore the blockade of the Isthmus of Perekop can’t prevent the occupying power from complying with that obligation.

As of the moment, it appears that the Russian Federation basically complies with its duties to satisfy the basic needs of the Crimean population in foodstuff and commodities. Although the living standards may have changed, they appear to greatly exceed the minimum requirements of IHL.

On the other hand, the rules of the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols set up only the basic requirements for all cases of occupation. According to recent observations by the ICRC, the understanding the of needs of the civilian population in armed conflicts becomes increasingly multifaceted and complex, including not only protection, provision of basic commodities and medicines, but also safeguarding fundamental human rights of the population, addressing the needs of specific communities (ethnic, religious, etc.) and groups having specific needs like internally displaced persons or persons living with disabilities [10]. This is especially true for protracted or frozen conflicts, that may be not as disastrous for the civilians as open hostilities, but which still tend to have a long-lasting and profound effect on the normal course of civilian life.

It appears that here the IHL meets the international human rights law, as it tends to refer to the concepts of the latter for interpretation of its own terms. For example, the provisions of the Conventions and Protocols prohibiting adverse distinctions are construed as prohibiting discrimination in the sense of human rights law [11]. Another example is the construed obligation of the occupying power to allow the civilian population to leave the occupied area that is comparable to the freedom of movement under human rights law.

This combination gives Ukraine a chance to address the question of compliance of the Russian occupation of Crimea with international humanitarian law under the veil of human rights law. The European Court of Human Rights has on many occasions touched upon the matters of international humanitarian law in its judgments (most notably in Hassan v. the United Kingdom). It can therefore be expected, that the obligations of Russia under international humanitarian law during the occupation of Crimea will be subject to consideration by an international judicial institution.        

1.           Tolstykh V. Reunification of Crimea with Russia: A Russian Perspective. Chinese Journal of International Law. 2014. No 13. P. 879-886.

2.           Burke J., Panina-Burke S. The Reunification of Crimea and the City of Sevastopol with the Russian Federation. Russian Law Journal. 2017. Vol. V, Issue 3. P. 29-68.

3.           Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Report on the human rights situation in Ukraine 16 November 2019 to 15 February 2020

4.           Resolution on the Russian military aggression against Ukraine and the urgent need for a peaceful resolution to the conflict (2015/C 315/06).

5.           Office of the Prosecutor. Report on Preliminary Examination Activities 2019, 5 December 2019.

6.           Definition of Aggression, A/RES/3314 (XXIX) of 14 December 1974.

7.           Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 12 August 1949.

8.           Commentary to the IV Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War / Ed. by J. Pictet. Geneva: International Committee of the Red Cross, 1958. 660 p.

9.           Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I) of 8 June 1977.

10.         International humanitarian law and the challenges of contemporary armed conflicts Recommitting to protection in armed conflict on the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions Report Document prepared by The International Committee of the Red Cross Geneva, October 2019.

11.         Customary IHL Database. https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v1_rul_rule88.

12.         Hassan v. the United Kingdom [GC], no. 29750/09, ECHR 2014.