Why We Must View Russia’s Breaches of the Genocide Convention through a Gendered Lens

Why We Must View Russia’s Breaches of the Genocide Convention through a Gendered Lens

By: Emily Prey

Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent war signify a breach of the 1948 Genocide Convention, according to a landmark legal report published in May 2022 by the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, D.C. and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights in Montreal, Canada. The 2022 New Lines report was largely based on open-source intelligence and endorsed by over thirty-five of the top legal and genocide scholars in the world. After an examination of all the available evidence, the report found that Russia bears state responsibility for two breaches of the Genocide Convention: incitement of genocide and intent to destroy the Ukrainian group, in part. In July 2023, the New Lines Institute published an updated report which concluded that the Russian Federation has escalated its efforts to commit genocide and that violations of the Genocide Convention exist beyond a reasonable doubt. These breaches trigger the duty to prevent genocide under international law.

Under Article II of the Genocide Convention, there are five genocidal acts, only one of which is mass killing. Despite this, the world continues to privilege the act of killing over other nonlethal genocidal acts; colloquially, genocide is often understood only as instances of mass slaughter. Though this should have no bearing on international law, the lack of killing is frequently cited as an excuse by States that would prefer to avoid acting to prevent and punish this crime. However, four out of the five acts of genocide are nonlethal and can include, but are not limited to, the forcible separation of children from their families to break familial bonds, rape and sexual violence, and inflicting conditions of life intended to bring about the destruction of the group, in whole or in part — such as military sieges, destroying infrastructure and vital health care facilities, and deliberate attacks on shelters and humanitarian corridors — all of which we have seen in Ukraine.

Typically, when genocides occur, men are more likely to be victims of mass killing while women are more likely to be victims of nonlethal genocidal acts, like rape or sexual torture. Ukraine is no exception to this. While men can also be victims of nonlethal acts, such as rape, torture, and forced sterilization, these stories, like women’s stories, are usually overlooked or ignored and are not recognized by prosecutors after the fact. Most survivors of genocide will never receive justice, simply because they are viewed less as victims and more as survivors. Furthermore, perpetrators of genocide have an understanding of gender, whether they are cognizant of it or not, because they target their victims based on gender and their roles in society. Women are targeted for their roles as mothers, wives, and bearers of children who continue the family line. Their bodies are frequently targeted in order to send a message to the men in their communities about their powerlessness and impotence. We have repeatedly seen targeting of women, specifically their sexual and reproductive organs, in the war in Ukraine.

But why is a gendered view of atrocity crimes, and of this war in particular, so important? We need look no further than the Uyghur Tribunal that took place in December 2021 in the United Kingdom, which examined allegations of genocide against the Uyghur minority in China. The Tribunal held that violations of the Genocide Convention did in fact occur because of the measures put in place by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) intended to prevent births within the group. This includes sexual violence against Uyghurs, forced sterilization, purposefully separating Uyghur men from women, and other such methods intended to decrease the population over time. It was because of this nonlethal genocidal act and the gendered way in which the CCP is carrying out this genocide by targeting, in large part, the sexual and reproductive organs of Uyghur women and men, that a judgement of genocide was found in this case.

Unfortunately, sexual and gender-based crimes are often brushed to the side or not taken as seriously as other crimes. However, rape and sexual violence can be indicative of genocidal intent, as my latest report on “Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Ukraine: Lessons from Bosnia” clearly shows. Every day that world leaders drag their feet and delay taking stronger action against Russia gives Russian forces additional opportunities to commit heinous crimes against the Ukrainian people, with the intent to destroy the Ukrainian population in whole or in part. Without a full understanding of how gender interacts with genocide, the international community and the signatories to the Genocide Convention are ill-equipped to effectively perform their duty under international law to prevent and punish this crime.


About the author: Emily Prey is the Director of the Gender Policy Portfolio at the New Lines Institute. She served as an advisor on and contributed to the institute’s groundbreaking independent expert reports: “The Uyghur Genocide: An Examination of China’s Breaches of the Genocide Convention” and “An Independent Legal Analysis of the Russian Federation’s Breaches of the Genocide Convention in Ukraine and the Duty to Prevent.” Her work has been published in several international publications including Foreign Policy, The Dhaka Tribune, and Praxis Journal of Human Security.

Prey has been interviewed by international media, including The New York Times, CNN, Radio France International, ilGiornale, and Radio Free Asia Institute for her expertise on gender, conflict-related sexual violence, and genocide. She has briefed members of Congress and their staff, U.S. government agencies, and members of parliaments around the world on genocide; conflict-related sexual violence; and Women, Peace and Security. She obtained her Master’s degree in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University and her Bachelor’s in History from Williams College.

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