March marked the beginning of spring but also many important developments in legal news around the world. The Russia-Ukraine war continues to feature prominently in the news for March 2022, while Putin’s biggest domestic threat has received a new prison sentence. This month marked a major moment in United States judicial history as the first black woman was nominated to serve the Supreme Court. London’s Met Police has come under fire for racial bias following an incident involving an inappropriate strip search on an underage black girl. Let us look at the top legal news of this month below.
Is President Putin a War Criminal?
Following Russia’s sustained bombings of Ukraine, United States President Biden referred to President Putin as a war criminal. This narrative was also echoed by the European Union’s Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell. Biden’s “recent unacceptable statements'' were met with Russia’s threat of cutting ties with the United States.
US officials usually tend to refrain from using such characterisations ahead of official conclusions made by international investigations. The meaning of “war crime” was clearly defined in the 1949 Geneva conventions, which was later expanded upon by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). This designation describes instances including willful killing, willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health and extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly.
Since the beginning of Ukraine’s invasion, Russia’s air attacks have demolished residential buildings, hospitals and schools. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner, as of 21 March, there have been 953 civilian deaths and 1557 injuries. The bombing of the Donetsk Regional Theatre of Drama in Mariupol, which was being used to shelter around 1300 people, has demonstrated to world leaders that Putin is committing war crimes. Mariupol has been under siege for the past three weeks and the attacks have impaired the city’s water supply, heating system and electricity. Ukrainian authorities have also accused Russia of bombing a school that harbored 400 people but the number of casualties and injuries is still unknown.
The Chief Prosecutor of the ICC has launched an investigation to explore the possibility that Russia is committing war crimes after a referral from 39 countries. Even though Ukraine is not part of the ICC, the Court has jurisdiction over crimes committed on Ukraine’s territory. As hopeful as that sounds, there are legal limitations that impede the process of putting Putin on trial. For instance, it would be very difficult to obtain concrete evidence proving that Putin gave those orders. Russia is not under the ICC’s jurisdiction but the International Court of Justice can pass on the affair to the United Nations Security Council. However, due to its veto power Russia has been able to reject a resolution that demanded it stops its invasion against Ukraine.
In that case, other legal bodies could take over the prosecution of Putin such as special tribunals organised by the United Nations. Ultimately, the major obstacle against prosecution is the infeasibility of arresting Putin and his officials. Even though it is highly uncertain whether Putin will actually be convicted for war crimes, there is no doubt that President Biden’s statement has mobilised world leaders to take action to investigate these claims.
First Black Woman to be Nominated for the US Supreme Court
At the end of February 2022, President Biden nominated Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. This is a historic moment for the US justice system because she is the first woman to be nominated for this role and, if confirmed by the Senate, the first to serve in the Court.
On 21 March, hearings for her nomination began where she delivered her opening remarks before the Senate Judiciary Committee. If the 22-member Judiciary Committee approves her nomination, her appointment will be voted upon by the 100-member Senate. During her remarks, she promised to be independent and apply the rule of law:
"I decide cases from a neutral posture. I evaluate the facts, and I interpret and apply the law to the facts of the case before me, without fear or favour, consistent with my judicial oath.”
She also expressed her gratitude towards her parents and role models. Considering that the Senate is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, it is common knowledge that Democrats have enough votes to back her as Vice President Harris can cast a tie-breaking vote in her role as President of the Senate. However, that did not stop Republicans from bringing up a number of criticisms, including her work as a public defendant.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina did not hesitate to mention Justice Kavanaugh’s treatment by Democrats at the 2018 hearings in an attempt to justify the Republicans’ tough questioning. Throughout the hearing, Judge Jackson was characterised as being “too soft” and lenient in a number of different aspects. Specifically, Republican Senator Josh Hawley claimed that Jackson's child abuse sentences did not meet the federal guidelines suggested but the claims were eventually debunked as false. Furthermore, other committee members voiced concern that she helped detainees held at Guantanamo detention camp get out by providing free legal services. She responded by saying that “public defendants do not choose who to represent” and that everyone should be treated fairly. Finally, when asked about her opinions on abortion she stated that Roe v Wade is “settled law”.
On the final day of hearings, committee members will be given time for follow-up questions and the final decision will be made by the full Senate at the beginning of April.
US’ Formal Declaration of Myanmar’s Genocide against Rohingya
The United States made a formal accusation against Myanmar for committing genocide and crimes against humanity against the Rohingya minority population. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, explicitly said:
“The United States has concluded that genocide has been committed seven times. Today marks the eighth. I have determined that members of the Burmese military committed genocide and crimes against humanity”.
The Rohingya are one of the most discriminated against people in the world as well as one of Myanmar’s many ethnic minorities. In August 2017, the Myanmar government initiated sustained attacks against this minority in response to Rohingya Arsa militants attacking police posts. The military burned down their villages and caused seven hundred thousand Rohingya to flee the country and seek refuge in Bangladesh. Following the coup in 2021 when the military took over, the situation has not significantly improved.
Earlier, two State Department investigations resulted in inconclusive findings regarding the Myanmar government’s crimes. According to Blinken, the US will continue aiding the Rohingya refugees. The US has been collecting evidence from Rohingya refugees into the activities of the military since 2011. According to the evidence, there is “a clear intent behind these mass atrocities — the intent to destroy Rohingya,”. This designation may not lead to major new economic consequences, as sanctions have already been imposed by multiple countries. However, it has political importance as this formal declaration will mark the severity of the atrocities committed and attract international attention.
Russia’s Opposition Figure Alexei Navalnvy Sentenced to 9 Years in Prison
Over a year ago, Putin’s major opposition politician was arrested at the airport after he returned from his recovery in Germany after a suspected poisoning attempt by Russia’s Federal Security Service. Navalny’s efforts to reveal Putin’s corruption sparked public mobilisation and posed the biggest threat to his authoritarian oligarchy. Navalny was already sentenced with three and a half years in prison due to violation of probation terms while he was in the hospital.
Just a year later and amid the invasion of Ukraine, he was found guilty of fraud and contempt of court. He was accused of stealing £3.5 million given as donations to his organisations. In her verdict, Judge Margarita Kotova stated that “Navalny committed fraud, that is, the theft of other people’s property through deceit and breach of trust”. His new sentence comprises 9 years spent at a high-security prison. Russia’s continued attempts to silence him have not stopped him from encouraging civilians to protest against the invasion of Ukraine by posting on social media.
Met Police Sued for Inappropriate Strip-Search Incident
Protests have erupted across London and other cities in the United Kingdom in support of a 15-year old black girl who was strip searched by the Met police. The girl, also known as Child Q, was suspected to be carrying drugs and two female police officers took her out of an exam in search of cannabis while there was no adult present. The officers made her take off her sanitary pad with the knowledge that she was menstruating. Eventually, no drugs were found.
A safeguarding report showed that racism was likely to have played a role in the officers’ treatment of Child Q. According to the report, the "adultification bias" might have been an influencing factor, where “adults perceive black children as being older than they are because they see them as more "streetwise". The girl is suing the Met Police and her school at Hackney. Hackney’s mayor voiced that “removing the headteacher could be part of a process to bring about change.”
An Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC) investigation has been launched to determine whether there will be any reforms in the practice of strip searches by police and a deputy of the Met has publicly apologised for the incident.