Leaders from across Europe are laser-focused on holding Russia to account for its invasion of Ukraine.
The 46-nation Council of Europe, the continent’s preeminent human rights organisation, opened its first summit in 18 years late Tuesday in Iceland. The meeting centres on fully-backing member state Ukraine and condemning Russia, which was expelled from the organisation for inflicting war on its neighbour.
"We will make the real first step on our path to find a solution how to compensate for these atrocities and damages which Russia brings to Ukraine,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said.
While almost all European nations have provided military support or taken in refugees from Ukraine, the Council of Europe is uniquely placed to coordinate legal and judicial support.
“When we think in terms of reconstruction, it’s an enormously important judicial element to have this register of damages to give justice to the victims,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.
And after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stocked up on promises of military hardware throughout a long weekend of diplomatic hobnobbing in Italy, Germany, France and the UK, dozens of Europe's major leaders arrived in far-flung Iceland bent to turn the legal screws on the Kremlin.
“There will be no reliable peace without justice,” Zelenskyy told the leaders by video address from Kyiv. French President Emmanuel Macron promised all the leaders there “will continue to bring our tireless support to Ukraine”.
By Wednesday's conclusion, leaders at the summit want to have the outlines of a system in place so Moscow can be held liable for compensation to the victims later and allow for the battered nation to start the economic healing process. They are hoping that the United States, which has observer status at the summit, will also back that initiative.
“The register is just one of a number of international initiatives set up to ensure accountability for the crimes inflicted in Ukraine,” UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said. The Council of Europe also wants to make sure Russia can be held accountable for what it sees as a plethora of crimes committed during the invasion.
Macron said the council's development bank should mobilise funds to build up mental health centres in Ukraine because “among the population, there are so many traumas” from almost 15 months of war.
In Kyiv, the words of support brought no immediate relief from Moscow's military might, as Russia launched an intense air attack on the capital using a combination of drones, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles.
Zelenskyy told the European leaders assembled at the Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik that “all lives were protected. All missiles were shot down." Turning his attention to the summit, he added, “This is a historical result. Thank you all.”
Instead of tanks and ammunition, the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe seeks to bring legal and humanitarian support. It has been a guardian, with fluctuating success, of human rights, democracy and the rule of law on the continent since its inception in 1949. Rarely has the need been higher than in today’s world.
The summit also focused on the plight of children moved from Ukraine to Russia during the invasion. In March, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes, accusing him of personal responsibility for the abductions of children from Ukraine. Another official has also been indicted.
Since the start of the war, the Russians have been accused of deporting Ukrainian children to Russia or Russian-held territories to raise them as their own. Thousands of children have been seized from schools and orphanages during Russia’s occupation of eastern Ukraine and it is not known where they are now.
Macron said: “the forced transfer of children are war crimes and, overall, can be considered crimes against humanity”.
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