The Rules We Cannot Break

Early yesterday morning (Wednesday 2 March 2022), the Ukrainian political activist Daria Kaleniuk shared a tweet from Воїни України — ‘Warriors of Ukraine’ — containing a short video of a group of civilians, including small children, preparing crates of Molotov cocktails for the defence of their city. The video had been edited with a stirring patriotic tune to give the overall impression of an ISIS recruitment video, and Kaleniuk had added the English translation: ‘Women, children preparing Molotov cocktails to “greet” Russian occupants.’ The replies to this tweet are a catalogue of mainly English speakers in the US and Britain — no doubt the intended audience — gushing praise over these apparent superheroes of freedom and democracy.

At the start of the conflict, on the day the Russian invasion began, western news outlets were reporting that the Ukrainian government was handing out firearms — automatic assault rifles — and ammunition to any citizen who was prepared to remain in the country and fight. Amidst the deafening narrative of an ‘unprovoked attack’ by Russia and the unsubstantiated fear mongering that Vladimir Putin — ‘another Adolf Hitler’ — intended to re-establish the Soviet Union or the Czarist Russian Empire, western news anchors and the European and North American commentariat were vying with one another to produce the most lavish superlatives to praise these apotheosised ordinary civilians who were right now risking their lives for truth, justice, and the American way.

Not long after, this same western media was captivated by the Katniss Everdeen cut of Anastasia Lenna, the ‘beauty queen’ who represented Ukraine in the 2015 Miss Grand International beauty contest, sporting a machine gun and standing in readiness to fight to the death. This PR pin-up was quickly followed by a slew of posts to Ukrainian social media of images depicting attractive young Ukrainian women — and girls — flaunting their sex appeal and their AK-47s. Naturally these images went viral and men in their mothers’ basements from Seattle to Warsaw were splashing their masturbatory fantasies of Ukrainian heroism all over 4chan and 8kun.

These pictures of grandparents, women, and children training to shoot assault rifles, of police distributing weapons to civilians, and ordinary people packing incendiaries created a din of war hungry adulation in the western media. We were supposed to be stirred by these Ukrainian giants and moved to show our support for their righteous cause. More importantly, we were to feel for them and attack anyone unwilling to join the baying chants for war. But here in plain sight was a series of phenomena that had we witnessed in Sudan or the Central African Republic we would decry them as typical of the savagery and barbarism we have come to expect from African warlords — child soldiers and the wholesale blurring of the line between non-combatants and belligerents. Yet — and absolutely because they are white and fighting Russia — these Ukrainian child soldiers and combatant civilians have to be treated differently; lionised and glorified as ‘warriors.’

Right now the media in this part of the world is losing its mind over the reported two-thousand and more civilians who have lost their lives in this conflict so far. Our media said very little about the million civilians who died as a result of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq or the hundreds of thousands killed in Afghanistan. Still, two-thousand is two-thousand too many, but — and let’s be brutally honest — how can we be sure these casualties were in fact ‘civilians?’ In war, one does not need to be a soldier to be treated under international humanitarian law as a combatant. By arming civilians, the Ukrainian government has in effect stripped ordinary people of the rights and protections guaranteed to them as civilians and non-combatants by the Geneva Convention.

According to customary international humanitarian law (IHL), civilians — who are ‘protected against attack’ (IHL Rule 6) — are ‘persons who are not members of the armed forces’ (IHL Rule 5). But these rules do not protect all ‘civilians.’ There are exceptions:

An exception to this rule is the levée en masse, whereby the inhabitants of a country which has not yet been occupied, on the approach of the enemy, spontaneously take up arms to resist the invading troops without having time to form themselves into an armed force. Such persons are considered combatants if they carry arms openly and respect the laws and customs of war. This is a long-standing rule of customary international humanitarian law already recognized in the Lieber Code and the Brussels Declaration. It is codified in the Hague Regulations and the Third Geneva Convention (IHL Rule 5).

Ukrainian civilians — qua persons who are not members of the armed forces — who have taken up arms before the occupation of Ukraine have in effect become a levée en masse. They are considered under international humanitarian law and by the rules of military engagement in international treaty law as combatants. They are no longer safeguarded by the laws and conventions of warfare that exist to protect civilians and civilian populations. Such persons may be targeted and killed by invading forces as enemy combatants, and where such persons (combatant civilians) take shelter among non-combatant civilians they pose a serious danger to unarmed civilians who may be killed as collateral damage in any fighting between the invaders and the combatants.

The wanton glorification of these so-called warriors is something that should trouble us all deeply. At best, these people — ordinary people — are untrained and irregular soldiers. It is difficult even to describe them as having the basic tactical understanding of a militia given their complete lack of training, experience, and leadership. These, for the most part, are solitary fighters and small bands of friends and family. In a hot conflict situation they stand little chance against well trained and well equipped Russian soldiers — even less chance against Special Forces and armour, and are more likely than not to confuse an already confused situation and so contribute to the deaths of members of the Ukrainian regular armed forces. Professional soldiers do not need the help of untrained civilians.

This then brings us back to the question of the civilian death toll. Civilians armed by their own government in wartime are victims both of their own government and of the enemy. When we consider the reported civilian casualty numbers we must subtract from this the number of combatants, giving us a smaller number than that reported by the media. War is a nightmare for civilians. There is no denying this. Civilians are to be protected by all sides in the conflict; defended in situ in active conflict areas and assisted to evacuate when not. By arming civilians, the Ukrainian government has engendered an awful situation in which Russian soldiers will be permitted — under the rules of war — to kill civilians and a horrible reality in which war crimes against non-combatants may go unpunished because in this theatre civilians have been weaponised.

Jason Michael McCann, M.Phil. (TCD) Conflict Studies
The author holds a postgraduate degree in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict from the University of Dublin, Trinity College, and an academic fellowship in the study of conflict from the University of West Flanders. He has published on the history of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and the murder of the Hungarian Jews in 1944.