Crimean Tatars: Eight Years of Anything but Marginal Resistance

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On 3 March 2022, Professor Alain Pellet published a reflection on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, drawing parallels to the 2014 occupation of Crimea. With the eighth anniversary of the Crimean ‘referendum’ approaching, this post will respond to Prof. Pellet’s thoughts on the Crimean Tatars and their ‘marginal’, according to Prof. Pellet, reaction to Russia’s activities in Crimea since 2014. This post will also address the ensuing human rights violations and crimes that were committed against the Crimean Tatars in 2014 and beyond, which formed a campaign of persecution and racial discrimination persisting to date.

Crimean Tatar Resistance to the Occupation

Crimean Tatars, indigenous people of Crimea subjected to decades of gradual displacement culminating in the mass Soviet-staged deportation from Crimea in 1944 (Aurélie (SciencesPo, 2008)), form approximately 12% of the Peninsula’s population (OHCHR §46). Nonetheless, this ethnic group stiffly opposed Russia’s presence in Crimea from the commencement of the occupation in February 2014. Prof. Pellet correctly noted that this opposition has been relatively bloodless (in comparison to the ongoing armed conflict), yet it has never been marginal.

The Washington Post rightly described Crimean Tatars “as a highly mobilised and unified constituency that has consistently been pro-Ukrainian and opposed to pro-Russian separatism” in Crimea. They were the driving force of large pro-Ukrainian rallies resisting the occupation in winter and spring 2014 (OHCHR 2017, §23). Further, Crimean Tatar leaders called upon their people to boycott the referendum on Crimea’s accession to Russia of 16 March 2014 (OHCHR 2017, §23), which was subsequently declared illegal by the international community (UNGA, Res 68/262, §5). When Russia banned the Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev from returning to Crimea in spring 2014, thousands of Crimean Tatars rushed to the administrative border with the Ukrainian mainland to break through the cordon and let Dzhemilev enter the Peninsula (OHCHR 2017, §152).

Since then, Crimean Tatar protestors, activists, and their community more generally have consistently and continually voiced their fearless, far from marginal opposition to Russian policies, and Crimean Tatar leaders have openly advocated for unity with Ukraine (e.g., HRW 2017, HRW 2017, Amnesty International 2016), which galvanised the pro-Ukrainian population and unfortunately resulted in the systematic persecution of Crimean Tatars.

Crime of Persecution

Crimean Tatar resistance provoked a relentless Russian response, which, as available evidence shows, qualifies as the crime against humanity of persecution. The Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) of the International Criminal Court (ICC) preliminarily holds the view that the crime is being committed in Crimea (Preliminary Examination Activities Report 2020, §279). The Government of Ukraine plans to submit the detailed evidence in that respect soon.

Persecution requires the perpetrator to deprive members of a group of fundamental rights, in connection with the commission of international crimes, by reason of the identity of the group or collectivity or by targeting the group or collectivity as such based on prohibited grounds, such as political, national or ethnic identity. This conduct must also be part of a widespread or systematic attack against the civilian population (ICC Elements of Crimes, Art. 7(1)(h)).

Since the beginning of the occupation, Russian authorities have employed various tactics to repress opposition and harass and silence the Crimean Tatar community. The policy of “Russification” of Crimea (making it entirely pro-Russian and erasing reminders of Crimea’s past connection with Ukraine) implemented by the Russian authorities has targeted the Crimean Tatar community through inter alia murder, torture, enforced disappearance and forcible transfer of the Crimean Tatars from Crimea and their replacement with ethnic Russians (OHCHR 2017, §§50, 100-103; OHCHR 2021; HRW 2014; PACE Rapporteur 2021, §§27-28; Atlantic Council 2020), arbitrary use of criminal and administrative measures to target the Crimean Tatars and silence opposition, and measures to restrict the Crimean Tatars ability to enjoy their culture and practice their religion.

According to the latest data presented by the Ukrainian human rights organisation “Crimean Tatar Resource Centre” in August 2021, out of 230 political prisoners registered in Crimea since the beginning of the occupation, 162 were the Crimean Tatars. They were imprisoned under various false pretences, such as supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity; participating in Muslim organisations lawful in Ukraine but banned as terrorist groups in Russia; or organising / participating in pro-Ukrainian rallies groundlessly qualified as organising mass riots (OHCHR 2017, §97; Amnesty International 2017; PACE Rapporteur 2021, §§29-30). Many of these cases have reportedly involved grave fair trial and due process violations and resulted in lengthy convictions (CoE CHR 2021). Additionally, hundreds of Crimean Tatar families have been subjected to large-scale abusive police raids and home searches conducted with gross procedural violations (OHCHR 2016, §§183-185; PACE Rapporteur 2021, §§31-33; HRW 2021).

The Mejlis, the main Crimean Tatar representative body and the symbol of the revitalisation of the national movement, continues to be banned as an extremist organisation (OHCHR 2016, §§167-169) despite an order from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to lift the ban (Order, §106(1)(a)). The Russian authorities in Crimea have also ousted Crimean Tatar leaders and banned them from returning; shut down all independent Crimean Tatar media; and have attempted to gradually erase Crimean Tatar culture, particularly by restricting education in the Crimean Tatar language (UNESCO 2020, pp. 4-5, 10-11, 19).

Russia’s oppression has, therefore, severely deprived the Crimean Tatars of a wide range of fundamental rights – civil, political, social, cultural and economic. These violations are not random acts, but a deliberate campaign of targeting the Crimean Tatars as a group, specifically as ardent political opposition to its occupation and, thus, as a threat to Russia’s policy of “Russification” (HRW 2014). Russian policies have displayed a “pattern of persecution” and an “intent in targeting the group” (CoE CHR 2021; OHCHR 2018, §3). Thus, the persecution was based on several prohibited grounds, namely the ethnic and religious identity of the Crimean Tatars and their political opposition to the Russian authorities.

Additionally, these persecutory acts were connected with the commission of international crimes – war crimes and crimes against humanity – by either taking their form (e.g., enforced disappearance, murder, torture, etc.) or being equal to them in scale and gravity, both of which suffice to establish the crime of persecution (Nahimana Appeal Judgment, §987).

The persecution campaign satisfies the contextual elements of crimes against humanity, i.e., it was a part of an attack against the civilian population, which was both widespread and systematic (although Article 7 requires an attack to be widespread or systematic) (ICC Elements of Crimes, Art. 7(1)(h)).

Firstly, the campaign has been a part of an “attack”, i.e., “course of conduct involving the multiple commission of acts” amounting to crimes against humanity (ICC Elements of Crimes, Art. 7(1)(h)), which in the present case included the outlines of the crimes above committed against the civilian population of Crimea, including Crimean Tatars, who opposed the Russian regime. (e.g., OHCHR 2017, §§91, 104, 137-145, 221; OHCHR 2018, §42; HRW 2014).

Secondly, the attack has been widespread, which can be evidenced by its geographical and temporal scope, frequency and diversity of crimes, and the number of victims (Katanga Confirmation of Charges, §395; Ruto et al. Confirmation of Charges, §176). In the Crimean context, the attack covered the entire territory of Crimea and has been lasting since 2014, affecting hundreds of civilians and involving a vast range of perpetrators and repeated violent acts (IPHR 2016, §§83-85, 88; OHCHR 2017, §11; CoE CHR 2021).

Available evidence also suggests that this attack has been systematic, i.e., manifested in an organised, repeated and coordinated pattern of conduct carried out by State’s military and political authorities (Kordić and Čerkez Trial Judgment, §179). A vast range of Russian structures (e.g., police, prosecutorial organs, judiciary, special services, as well as State-controlled proxies) implemented institutionalised discriminatory procedures against the pro-Ukrainian population via clear patterns of crimes (IPHR 2016, §§86-88; OHCHR 2017, §11; CoE CHR 2021).

Hence, Russia’s continuing oppression of the Crimean Tatar ethnic group has amounted to the crime against humanity of persecution, and, as such, triggers individual criminal responsibility at the international (if the ICC decides to prosecute) and domestic levels.

Racial Discrimination

Additionally, contrary to Prof. Pellet’s assertions, there is solid evidence of racial discrimination of the Crimean Tatars, which would trigger Russia’s State responsibility under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). Racial discrimination will occur when any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference, based on, inter alia, national or ethnic origin, has the purpose of nullifying or impairing human rights and fundamental freedoms (ICERD, Art. 1(1)).

As outlined above, Russia’s discriminatory policies nullified or impaired a vast range of Crimean Tatars’ fundamental rights both in purpose and in effect. In contrast to other ethnic and national groups in Crimea – primarily Russians – the Crimean Tatars were disproportionately subjected to abusive misapplication of Russian laws and regular limitations on fundamental rights, including their right to self-determination (UNGA, Res 75/192, Preamble; PACE, Res 2387, §10; OHCHR 2017, §12).

The Crimean Tatars have been portrayed as violent terrorists and extremists, with the implied goal of ostracising them from the community by “instrumentalising” the non-Muslim and non-Crimean Tatar population’s fear of the Crimean Tatars (IPHR 2020; PACE Rapporteur 2021, §35). In the end, being a member of the Crimean Tatar in Crimea today means being “a target for the authorities” (HRW 2021).

Consequently, Russia’s oppression of the Crimean Tatars constituted racial discrimination, State responsibility for which is currently under consideration before the ICJ.


It has been eight years since Russia occupied Crimea despite the international condemnation and mass protests by the pro-Ukrainian groups, specifically Crimean Tatars whose resistance – not marginal but consolidated and continual – has made them a collective target of the Russian regime, which perceived the ethnic group as a whole as a political threat. Systematic, widespread and intense violations of Crimean Tatar’s fundamental rights present a solid case of the crime of persecution and racial discrimination persisting and intensifying to date.

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