From Justice Delayed to Justice Denied: Katyń in Strasbourg

This is cross-posted from Justice in Conflict, where it was first published on 31 October 2013.

The Katyń massacre took place between April and May 1940 when 20,000 thousand  Polish officers and officials were executed by NKVD, the Soviet special police. After decades of denial, Russia publicly acknowledged Soviet responsibility for the massacre in 1990. But the  entire truth about what happened in the forests of Katyń has remained out of reach. Many believe Russia has not done enough in coming clean about the massacre.

Katyń massacre monument in Kharkiv, photo: AFP / Sergei Supinsky

Last week, the Grand Chamber of the ECHR delivered its final decision in Janowiec et al. v. Russia (other comment here). The case before the ECHR concerned the quality of investigations conducted by Russian authorities into the Katyń massacre. These started in 1990 and ceased in 2004, following the decision of the Russian authorities to re-classify as “top-secret” 36 volumes of files and  to discontinue the investigation. The applicants before the Court argued that Russian authorities breached their rights by failing to carry out an effective investigation into the death of their relatives and displayed a dismissive attitude towards the applicants’ requests for information about their relatives’ fate.

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Forthcoming final judgement of the ECHR in the Katyn case

Today, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights is expected to announce its final judgement in the case of Janowiec and others v. Russia (applications no. 55508/07, 9520/09 ). The case originated from the events of April and May 1940 when an estimated 21,000 Polish officers and officials were detained in the Kozielsk, Starobelsk, and Ostashkov camps before being executed by the Soviet secret police (NKVD) in Katyń forest and the Kharkov and Tver NKVD prisons. The bodies were buried in mass graves.

When the graves were first discovered in 1943, Soviet authorities put the blame on the Nazis (see Burdenko Commission). The crime was ignored at the Nuremberg trials (see the commentary of Prof. Schabas here and here) and the “official” version of the events was imposed for the next 50 years. Continue reading

Lost in reconciliation? Poland, Ukraine and the Volhynia massacres

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Photo: Roger Gorączniak, via Wikimedia Commons

The crime of genocide was recently at the heart of one of the Polish parliament’s most heated and publicized debates of the past months. The crime was discussed in relation to the Volhynia massacres – one of those episodes in Eastern Europe’s World War II history which until now have not been ultimately reckoned with and continue to stir unwelcome animosities.

Prior to WW II, ethnic tensions in Volhynia worsened gradually in the thirties. This was largely due to Poland’s departure from the toleration policy it had initially adopted towards  the Ukrainian majority living in eastern borderlands of the country. The rise of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists triggered further repressive measures inflicted on the Ukrainians by the Polish government. These tensions eventually led to horrifying events. It is estimated that between 1943 and 1945 up to 100 thousand Poles were killed by units of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists−Bandera fraction (OUN-B) and its military wing, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) (OUN-UPA). The so called “butchery” took place mainly in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia between February 1943 and February 1944 and reached its peak in mid-July 1943. The supposed objective was to clean the Volhynia of ethnic Poles and thereby lay groundwork for an independent state of Ukraine. Although Poles were probably the main target of this OUN-UPA campaign they were not the only one. Many of those belonging to Jewish, Czech, Armenian and other ethnic groups which inhabited Vohlynia and Eastern Galicia were killed. Among the victims were also Ukrainians, either politically opposed to OUN-UPA or simply those whom the organization considered as too lenient towards the Polish occupant. In response to the attacks Poles soon organized themselves in self-defense groups and killed Ukrainians in acts of retaliation. It is estimated that 10 to 30 thousand Ukrainians lost their lives in the 1943 – 1947 clashes that continued in Volhynia and Western Galicia. To complete this brief summary of events, straight after the war, the newly formed communist government of Poland forcibly re-settled thousands (estimated at over 140 000) of Ukrainians from the south east of the country to the former German territories ceded to Poland at the Potsdam Peace Conference of 1945. The official aim of this Wisła operation was to remove any possible OUN-UPA support.

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