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Legal Experts Discuss Accountability Measures Against Russia at HLS Event

Harvard Law School's Langdell Hall is located at 1545 Massachusetts Avenue.
Harvard Law School's Langdell Hall is located at 1545 Massachusetts Avenue. By Julian J. Giordano
By Emma H. Haidar and Tyler J. H. Ory, Contributing Writers

Two international law experts discussed how to hold Russia accountable for the invasion of Ukraine at an event hosted by the Harvard Law School and Harvard Kennedy School on Wednesday.

The speakers included Yale Law School professor Harold H. Koh ’75, and Patrick W. Pearsall, Director of the International Claims and Reparations Project at Columbia Law School. Koh and Pearsall discussed their experiences representing Ukraine in legal proceedings against Russia before the International Court of Justice.

In February, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, drawing international outcry and allegations of war crimes committed by the Russian army.

Koh said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marked the beginning of “not just one but three wars” between the countries. Beyond the active warfare on the ground, Russia and Ukraine are both involved in “cyber war” and “lawfare,” he said.

“Putin’s short game is force. Ukraine’s long game is law,” Koh said.

When arguing before the ICJ in March, Koh framed the case as one “not about Russia versus Ukraine, but about Russia against the post-war, international legal order,” he said.

Koh said one of the Ukrainian legal team’s objectives was for the ICJ to declare Russia’s actions illegal, which would further “isolate Putin and his allies” and make it more difficult for other countries to support Russia in the conflict.

Later that month, the ICJ ruled in favor of Ukraine, classifying Russia’s actions as illegal and ordering Russia to stop its invasion.

Pearsall discussed the importance of accountability at a time when “the foundations of international law are shaking,” lauding a resolution passed Monday by the United Nations General Assembly aimed at holding Russia accountable for its actions in the invasion of Ukraine.

“It reaffirmed clearly and unmistakably, that when a state commits a wrongful act, it bears responsibility for that act, and that reparations are due,” Pearsall said.

The UN resolution calls for the establishment of an “international mechanism” to provide reparations for individuals who have claims against the Russian army. Pearsall said one way to hold Russia responsible for its war crimes is the creation of a reparations commission, which he said would streamline the process as “the exclusive forum for the resolution of claims.”

Koh said the current legal actions against Russia regarding its invasion of Ukraine will have a significant impact on the future of international law.

“The Iran hostage crisis of the 1970s and into the 80s shaped the next forty years of international law, of which I have lived,” he said.

“Russia-Ukraine will shape the next forty years,” Koh added.

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