What is genocide? Meaning of term, why Putin has been accused of war crimes - and how Russia has responded

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has called the Russian airstrike attack on a maternity hospital in Mariupol “the ultimate act of genocide”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused more than two million Ukrainian refugees to flee their homeland, with hundreds reported to be dead or wounded.

A children’s hospital and maternity ward in Mariupol was destroyed by a Russian airstrike on Wednesday (9 March) where three people were killed including a child.

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Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky called the attack “the ultimate evidence of genocide” while Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Vladimir Putin is guilty of committing war crimes.

But what is genocide, why has Russia been accused of a war crime and how has Putin responded?

What is genocide?

Genocide is defined as a mass extermination of a particular group of people - usually an ethnic, national, racial or religious group.

The term was coined in 1943 by the Jewish-Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin after witnessing the horrors of the Holocaust.

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He campaigned to have genocide recognised as a crime under international law and his efforts led to the adoption of the United Nations Genocide Convention in December 1948.

It came into effect in January 1951.

Why has Russia been accused of a war crime?

The UN Charter 1949 prohibits the threat or the use of force by one state against another and this invasion by Russia in Ukraine appears to be a clear violation of this.

The bombing of the maternity hospital was one of three reported attacks on hospitals in Ukraine on Wednesday (9 March).

Two hospitals in the city of Zhytomyr, located around 150km west of Kyiv, were also hit by Russian bombs.

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Ukraine has accused Russia of war crimes and genocide over the attacks. President Zelensky has already accused Russia of war crimes after air strikes on the country’s second city, Kharkiv.

AFP via Getty Images

The US Embassy in Kyiv said on Friday 4 March that Russia committed a war crime by attacking a nuclear power plant in Ukraine.

Boris Johnson also told MPs that Russian leader Vladimir Putin is guilty of committing war crimes following his use of indiscriminate cluster bombs.

The Prime Minister was responding to a question in the Commons when he was asked whether Putin was a war criminal and should face trial in the Hague.

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The Prime Minister replied: “What we have seen already from Vladimir Putin’s regime in the use of the munitions that they have been dropping on civilians in my view fully qualifies as a war crime.”

He added that the International Criminal Court prosecutor was looking into whether Putin was guilty of committing war crimes.

International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Karim Khan said he was now investigating possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine on Wednesday 9 March.

The UK has joined 37 countries in issuing a state party referral to the ICC, allowing the prosecutor to launch an investigation without judicial approval.

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The investigation said a "collection of evidence" had started.

“Any Russian leader or officer carrying out orders that amount to war crimes should know they face ending up in the dock of a court and ultimately in prison,” Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said.

How has Russia responded?

There has been some rare mixed messaging in the Kremlin’s response to the hospital attack, which perhaps re

Spokesman Dmitry Peskov, talking in the immediate aftermath on Wednesday 10 March, told Reuters: "Russian forces do not fire on civilian targets."

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However, on Thursday he said the Kremlin would look into the incident: "We will definitely ask our military, because you and I don't have clear information about what happened there," Peskov said. "And the military are very likely to provide some information."

The UN Charter states that countries have the right to use force if it’s self-defence.

Putin has twisted the language of the law to defend his actions, asserting that Russia’s invasion is justified due to an unsupported claim that Kyiv is committing genocide in Ukraine’s Donbas region against ethnic Russians.

In his televised speech on the day of Russia launched its invasion on 24 February, Putin said it was a special military operation and a legitimate act of self-defence by Russia.

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Support people fleeing the devastating conflict in Ukraine: donate to the DEC appeal

Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) charities and their local partners are in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries providing food, water, shelter and medical assistance. Learn more and donate what you can today

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