Sa, 4.02.2023

Former prosecutor general warns against participation in foreign wars

Priit Pullerits
Former prosecutor general warns against participation in foreign wars
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Former prosecutor general, legal expert Lavly Perling.
Former prosecutor general, legal expert Lavly Perling. Photo: Eero Vabamägi

People who decide to fight illegal wars for other countries need to be held responsible, legal expert Lavly Perling says in an interview.

News of around 20 Finns having fought on the side of Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine broke last week. This suggests Estonians joining Donetsk or Luhansk fighters or Russian troops waiting on the Ukraine border cannot be ruled out.

Lavly Perling, former prosecutor general and legal adviser for Ukraine on rule of law reforms, warns that illegal action as a foreign fighter will be followed by prosecution and punishment in Estonia.

There is no information to suggest Finnish authorities have brought criminal proceedings against those who have fought on the side of separatists in Ukraine. What would be Estonia’s reaction?

I do not know the reasons for Finland’s action or lack thereof, while Estonia has a fundamental position in this matter, also as reflected in previous court judgments, according to which there is zero tolerance for such actions.

Whether our legislation is robust enough to support that position is another matter. But I believe it is. Looking at the Penal Code that has been repeatedly amended in connection with terrorist crimes – terrorism is not narrowly tied to Islam and can also concern foreign fighters in Ukraine – every little action to support terrorism has been criminalized. Therefore, Estonia has created all necessary conditions for conviction and punishment [following illegal action as a foreign fighter].

Why do we need to bring the law to bear on people who fight in foreign conflicts but do not directly threaten our country?

Firstly, because the world is a whole. Secondly – undermining security, killing and fighting for suspicious groups is condemnable from the point of view of common social values – it is a crime. The third argument is domestic and suggests that we do not need people who go and fight foreign wars on dubious grounds following their own initiative, which is no doubt having an effect on their behavior, personality and understanding of the world.

Is there a legal difference between a person going to fight for a foreign country or a private group, such as Wagner?

Naturally there is a difference. There are clear distinctions between legal struggles and illegal groups.

Yes, you are free to go and fight for another country, but you will be held responsible if you get it wrong or do it illegally. People can serve Ukraine by signing corresponding contracts and doing things by the book – because Ukraine is a country fighting for its independence, which is not something we can condemn.

What about decisions to join nongovernmental forces?

I would refrain from listing places where one can or cannot go. The message is that the person first needs to get a very good idea of what it is they want to join. The best option is not to join at all because an individual usually lacks the necessary information on what constitutes acceptable action.

Is joining a conflict between third countries the sides to which have no links to Estonia a less serious offense than, for example, joining the fight against Ukraine?

Everything to do with crimes against global peace and international security might result in ramifications in Estonia. While collecting evidence can be more challenging in such cases, the person will still be held responsible in Estonia. Again, if there is no clarity then it is best to avoid joining the fight because the world is a hugely complex place. It can be very difficult to tell who is who from afar, especially in the case of exotic cultures and countries.

The Russians claimed that their troops were on leave when the invasion of Ukraine started. Why cannot one spend their vacation fighting in a conflict somewhere?

Examples are myriad. Only a fool cannot come up with an excuse.

Is there a law in Estonia to deprive someone of their right to fight in a conflict?

I believe Estonia will have no trouble finding the appropriate section when someone commits a crime. The matter of individual responsibility boils down to the details and evidence in a specific case. The law is clear, the precedent established, and I believe there are enough motivated people in the legal system for holding accountable perpetrators of crimes against sovereignty or international law.

What constitutes waging war in the first place? Could tending to the wounded be construed as military action that has legal consequences at some point?

Yes, it is a theoretical possibility. Efforts to regulate war for it to fall under certain agreements and values, to protect as many civilians as possible have been made for a long time. That said, it has become a major challenge as forms of warfare have changed.

Do we need additional regulation in light of this changing world to avoid having to share our country with people who also threaten us by fighting for our enemies?

As a legal expert, I have always felt that existing laws need to be implemented before seeking amendment on theoretical grounds. Three things are effective against so-called lifestyle crimes of terrorism, corruption and organized crime: effective legislation, political will and motivated crime fighters. You will be successful if you have all three.