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Ukraine Government Taps Big Law Firms for War Crimes Task Force

March 31, 2022, 9:25 PM

The Ukraine government has turned to global law firms Covington & Burling and Withers, along with human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, to help prosecute war crimes in the Russian invasion of the country.

The Task Force on Accountability for Crimes Committed in Ukraine will work to secure criminal accountability and reparations in forums such as the International Criminal Court. Covington & Burling and Withers said they are working with the group pro bono.

The Ukraine government has tapped several major law firms for work stemming from the invasion. It has also turned to human rights attorneys like Clooney, a lawyer for U.K.-based Doughty Street Chambers who has represented Ukraine’s former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and is married to actor George Clooney.

Morrison & Foerster disclosed on Monday that it is advising Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky and other officials on economic sanctions imposed on Russia in response to the invasion, and to help navigate U.S. policy. John Smith, a former Treasury Department official who is co-head of the firm’s national security practice, is leading the effort.

London-based Withers said international arbitration partner Emma Lindsay will lead a team of 15 lawyers in the firm’s U.S. and UK offices who are assisting Ukraine’s government.

“We have worked closely with the Government of Ukraine for many years,” Lindsay said, in a statement, “and this initiative is without a doubt the most important project on which we have advised the government to date.”

The task force aims to “secure justice for Ukrainian civilians who are victims of Russian aggression and associated violations of international law,” Lindsay noted, in a statement.

Ukraine’s prosecutor general Iryna Venediktova announced the formation of the task force, which also draws on lawyers from French firm Sygna Partners, earlier this week. The group is partnering with Microsoft to review video evidence of war crimes, investigate those situations and advise on the appropriate international forums to pursue punishment for any such crimes, Lindsay said.

Russia is not a member of the International Criminal Court and it is not expected to cede authority to the tribunal. Lindsay said that Ukraine had accepted the court’s jurisdiction in order to prosecute war criminals.

Covington & Burling has also been representing Ukraine in the International Court of Justice, which on March 2 ordered Russia to suspend military operations in Ukraine. Marney Cheek, co-chair of Covington’s international disputes practice, has argued that the Russian invasion was carried out “under the false pretext of preventing and punishing genocide.”

Los Angeles-based Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, also acting pro bono, is representing Ukraine before the European Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg, France. Lawyers in that case accuse Russia of waging “unprovoked, unjustified and unlawful acts of aggression and invasion of the sovereign territory of Ukraine.”

Withers said its work will include advice on proposals for accountability, including through the United Nations and regional organizations; advice and potential representation relating to civil and criminal cases; and guidance on Ukraine’s cooperation with the International Criminal Court.

Roughly 4 million people have fled Ukraine since the fighting began Feb. 24, more than 9% of the country’s pre-war population.

The U.S. and its European allies have imposed a series of sanctions on Russia, particularly its financial institutions, officials and oligarchs.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Olson at egolson1@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com; John Hughes at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com