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The Hague Cleveringa meeting focused on Ukraine: justice in a time of war

How can impunity in Ukraine be addressed? And what is it like to suddenly live under Russian occupation? The annual Hague Cleveringa meeting commemorates the famous protest speech by Professor Cleveringa.

On 26 November 1940, he delivered a fiery speech against the dismissal of his Jewish colleagues, Professors Meijers and David. This year, the meeting provided a platform for profound questions about war and justice. The keynote speaker and a student speaker offered their unique perspectives on the conflict in an engaging manner.

Breaking the cycle: confronting a history of impunity in Ukraine

Under this title, professor Larissa van den Herik presented her lecture. Referring to previous Russian violence, she suggested that the aggression against Ukraine is part of a larger pattern: 'The invasion of Ukraine, which Russia commenced on 24 February 2022, was preceded by the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the occupation of areas in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. This, in turn, was preceded by the Russian-Georgian war that began on 8 August 2008. The consequences of the Soviet Union's annexation still linger in the Baltic states. Thus, Russian aggression against Ukraine is part of a broader pattern.'

History as a weapon

To break this cycle, various accountability efforts are needed. Apart from individual criminal responsibility (predominantly led by the International Criminal Court possibly joined by a Special Tribunal for Aggression), and the obligation to provide reparation (a principle acknowledged since 1927), a significant aspect is historical accountability.

And why this focus on the past when the present already presents numerous challenges? 'My response,' said professor Van den Herik, 'is the title of my lecture: To break the cycle of history.' Without international consensus on the past and lacking critical introspection, closed societies with no independent academia can easily abuse history as a weapon. 'As we have seen Putin do, by propagating his distorted version of history to legitimise aggressive actions against neighbouring countries. Accountability efforts, therefore, should aim to break the cycle of history. They should confront a history of impunity. And they must strive to provide full accountability.'

Yana Rudenko

'Now I know what war is'

Student speaker Yana Rudenko grew up in Kyiv, studied economics and management in Lviv, and was in Bucha at the start of the Russian invasion. She lived for several weeks under Russian occupation, as she mentioned in her presentation 'From Bucha to The Hague.' Using a photo with friends, she described the transition from peace to war. 'Here you see us at one of Europe's largest tech conferences. We are young and dreaming. We want to contribute, explore, go out. A few months later, I was hiding with twenty other people in a cellar in Bucha from Russian bombings. We had no electricity, no heat, no running water, and limited internet. I didn't know if I would survive the next day. Until then, I did not understand war, but now I do. The war came suddenly and without provocation or warning.'

'Ordinary people can achieve extraordinary thing'

Yana's speech also touched on the broader implications of unaddressed violence: 'Unpunished evil grows. Unpunished evil returns. The Russian military committed heinous crimes in Chechnya, Moldova, Georgia, Mali, Syria, Libya, and Ukraine. They have never been held accountable. They believe they are above consequences. Surrendering territory does not bring peace – it results in occupation. The Russians perpetrated these atrocities simply because they could.' Despite the grim realities, Yana's outlook remains hopeful: 'Ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things. We have witnessed that ordinary individuals can be stronger than the world's second-largest army.'

Following these harrowing experiences, Yana escaped to the Netherlands. Since 2022, she has been pursuing a master's degree in Public Administration at the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs. She serves as the president of the student association ABBA, dedicated to supporting students from the regions encompassing the Adriatic Sea, the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, and the Sea of Azov.

The event, held at the Wijnhaven building in The Hague, concluded in style. The chairman of the Hague Cleveringa Committee, Willem van der Werf, in his vote of thanks, highlighted 'the fantastic Ukrainian snacks prepared by Ukrainian chef Uliana Bun.' Exchanges like this can help foster a better understanding of other cultures.

Prominent figures such as the Ambassador of Ukraine Oleksandr Karasevych, the Honorary Consul of Ukraine Karel Burger Dirven, Emeritus Professor of International Public Law Prof. Dr. Alfred Soons from Utrecht University, and  the Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs Prof. Dr. Koen Caminada were present.

Cleveringa Meetings

Each year in November, Cleveringa Meetings are organised for Leiden alumni all over the world. During the Second World War, on 26 November 1940, Professor Cleveringa protested against the dismissal of two Jewish colleagues. Together with the Cleveringa Committees all around the world, LUF yearly organises a series of Cleveringa Meetings around this time to commemorate that famous speech.

Header photo: from left to right: prof. dr. Larissa van den Herik, H.E. Oleksandr Karasevych, Willem van der Werf, Yana Rudenko, Justin Spruit, Jaap Coenraad, Karel Burger Dirven, and prof. dr. Koen Caminada.

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