war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

UN Report: Russia used civilians as human shields and carried out summary executions including of a 14-year-old

Halya Coynash

One of the mass graves found in Kyiv oblast in the months following the Russians’ retreat Photo Kyiv Regional Police

One of the mass graves found in Kyiv oblast in the months following the Russians’ retreat Photo Kyiv Regional Police

A UN report published on 18 October has found that Russia was responsible for the vast majority of “war crimes, violations of human rights and international humanitarian law” documented in four Ukrainian oblasts from 24 February to the end of March.  The report paints a damning picture of the Russians’ methods of warfare, including indiscriminate attacks; the use of civilians as human shields and the shooting of civilians who were attempting to flee.  The Commission also found that in areas occupied by Russian armed forces, there had been summary executions, unlawful confinement, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence against victims of all ages.  Ukraine also came in for criticism, with some violations found, including two which constitute war crimes.

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine [the Commission] was set up at the request of the United Nations Human Rights Council.  Although the section of the report summarizing the war stretches almost to the time of publication, the three-person commission investigated only violations committed up till the end of March in four Ukrainian oblasts: Kyiv; Chernihiv; Kharkiv and Sumy.  This means that many of the attacks on civilians in, for example, Mariupol, fell outside the scope of the report, as do Russia’s bloody attacks on civilian targets over later months, for example, in Kramatorsk; Kremenchuk; Vinnytsia and other cities.

It is also worth recalling that this report is published as Russia is deliberately using Iranian drones to target and destroy critical infrastructure in parts of Ukraine far from the frontline.  On 18 October, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky reported that 30% of the country’s energy infrastructure has been hit. Back in April 2021, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution condemning attacks in situations of armed conflicts directed against civilians and other protected persons that deprive them of objects indispensable to their survival.  In 2022, Russia has repeatedly used its power of veto to block  any such resolutions and decisions pertaining to its unprovoked aggression against Ukraine.  Russia’s use of terrorist methods makes it incredible that it should still be on the Security Council, let alone be able to block its functioning.  Unsurprisingly, the Commission noted the lack of success in trying “to establish meaningful communication with Russian Federation authorities”.  It expressed, on the other hand, its appreciation of “the cooperation extended by the Government of Ukraine”.

Over the past eight months, Russia has continued to deny the vast amounts of evidence of atrocities in Bucha and other areas.  The proof may be irrefutable, but Moscow’s denials serve a cynical purpose, guaranteeing both useful headlines in the international media and media reports presenting hard evidence of atrocities as being merely what ‘Kyiv asserts’ and ‘Moscow denies’.  It is for this reason that reports like that by the Commission are of vital importance, and the Commission stresses that their findings will be shared “with competent investigative, prosecutorial, and judicial authorities to facilitate and expedite criminal proceedings.”

The findings are also vital given the number of areas still under Russian occupation.  There are no grounds for assuming that the situation there is any different.  Indeed, Kherson journalist and former resistance activist, Kostiantyn Ryzhenko recently said that the atrocities uncovered when Kherson is liberated may be far worse than those in Bucha.

Civilians as human shields

The Commission “found that in several cases, Russian armed forces appear to have deliberately positioned their troops or equipment in residential areas or near civilians to reduce the likelihood of attacks. Russian armed forces also forced civilians to remain inside or in proximity of their positions, exposing them to significant risk.

One example provided was from the Yahidne village in Chernihiv oblast where the Russians confined 365 civilians in the basement of a school which they themselves used both as headquarters, and as a site from which to launch attacks on Ukrainian positions.

Ukrainian Armed Forces, it should be noted, came under criticism “particularly during the first phase of the hostilities” for a lack of separation between armed forces and civilians.  The report mentions that two schools in Chernihiv were used both by the Ukrainian Armed Forces and for distributing humanitarian aid, with this clearly placing civilians at risk.

Indiscriminate attacks

Attacks were documented where explosive weapons had been used “indiscriminately in populated areas that were under attack by Russian armed forces. The Commission also found that Russian armed forces attacked civilians attempting to flee.”

The report notes the devastating effect on residential buildings; hospitals; schools and facilities hosting essential infrastructure in all four oblasts.  “The evidence obtained so far strongly suggests that the Russian armed forces have committed indiscriminate attacks

The Commission noted that in some cases Ukrainian forces might have been present and have been the intended target.  This, however, did not change the fact that these constituted indiscriminate attacks given “the type and number of munitions used impacted civilians and civilian objects in a wider area, beyond the apparent military objective.”

The Commission also confirmed what human rights NGOs have previously criticised, namely the use of “unguided rockets which cannot be precisely targeted, affect a large area when fired in salvos, and are therefore indiscriminate when used in populated areas.”   Such unguided missiles were, for example, using in Chernihiv, where more than 200 civilians were queuing for bread near a supermarket, with at least 14 people killed.

Attacks on civilians

The Commission found “numerous cases in which Russian armed forces shot at civilians trying to flee to safety and obtain food or other necessities, which resulted in the killing or injury of the victims.” It points out that “attacks intentionally targeting civilians are war crimes.”   Several such attacks are listed from a highway in Kyiv oblast, including one, near Motyzhyn, where a couple were killed and their 15-year-old daughter was wounded and is now missing.  Her 9-year-old sister was the only survivor.  The report notes that other organizations have documented other cases, and that such attacks were not isolated.  The Commission itself has found evidence of such attacks on civilians in “multiple locations in all four regions under investigation, suggesting a clear pattern.”  These included cases where civilians were fired upon despite being in cars clearly marked with a sign saying “children”.

Summary executions, torture, rape and other war crimes

In areas which the Russians had occupied, the Commission found violations which “included summary executions, torture, ill-treatment, and sexual and gender-based violence, unlawful confinement and detention in inhumane conditions, and forced deportations. Such acts also amount to war crimes.”

The Commission also notes that it “found two cases in which Ukrainian armed forces shot, wounded, and tortured persons hors de combat, which are war crimes. While few in numbers, such cases will continue to be the object of the Commission’s attention.”  More details are provided in Items 86 and 87, with the Commission noting that Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office has said that investigations have been initiated into both cases.

Summary executions

The report states that “investigations in Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Sumy regions reveal a pattern of summary executions in areas temporarily occupied by Russian armed forces in February and March 2022, which are violations of the right to life and war crimes.”

Although it was the evidence of such crimes in Bucha, and the photos of victims with their hands tied behind their backs and, reportedly, showing signs of torture, that were widely reported, the Commission found proof of such executions in all four oblasts.  “The Commission is investigating credible allegations of similar executions in 16 other towns and settlements, involving 49 victims. The majority are men of fighting age, but also two women and one 14-year-old boy. The cases are located in all four regions under the Commission’s initial focus, suggesting a wide geographical pattern.”

In the cases that the Commission is investigating, several elements, often in combination, indicate that the victims were executed. A common element is that victims were last seen in the custody or the presence of Russian armed forces. The bodies of the victims were exhumed from separate or mass graves or recovered from houses or basements which the Russian armed forces had occupied. Some victims’ dead bodies were found with hands tied behind their back, a clear indication that the victim was in custody and posed no threat at the time of death.”

While summary executions were mainly perpetrated following unlawful detention, the Commission also documented cases in which victims were executed in public places, as others were watching.”

Unlawful confinement, inhumane treatment, and forcible transfers

The Commission is dealing with the period up till the end of March, but the Russian imprisonment of civilians that it unlawfully imprisons is known to be continuing in all areas under Russian occupation. Important, therefore, to stress that the Commission identifies such confinement as “a violation of the right to liberty and a war crime. Victims included local authorities, state personnel, veterans of the Ukrainian armed forces, volunteers evacuating civilians, and civilians who seem to have been randomly arrested. While the majority were young or middle-aged men, women, children, and older persons were also confined.”

In some cases, the people are still missing.

In the majority of cases, the detention took place under conditions so severe that the confinement amounted to inhuman conditions, which is a violation of the right to be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person during deprivation of liberty, and a war crime.”

Men, women, and children were held together in the same space. There was a lack of light, ventilation, and heating during freezing March temperatures. Some were confined in a metal cellar. Access to food, water, and medical care was limited, and sanitary conditions were lacking. Unlawful confinement was often the precursor to executions, sexual violence, torture, and ill-treatment.”

In some cases, people were forcibly taken, either through Belarus or directly to the Russian Federation and imprisoned there.

“Many people are still missing from the areas that were under Russian armed forces occupation. For example, the Commission received from local residents in Dymer a list of 58 people still missing in Kyiv region. Many of them were last seen in the custody of Russian armed forces. While relatives have received confirmation that some of them are in detention in the Russian Federation, the fate of many is still unknown.”

Torture, ill-treatment, and wounding of protected persons

The Commission says that it has documented many cases of such torture and ill-treatment, including with the use of electric shocks and beatings, by the Russian armed forces.  It identifies such behaviour, not only as a violation of the prohibition against torture, but as a war crime.  Although the Russians mainly targeted men, there were women among the victims as well.

According to victims, Russian armed forces carried out long interrogation sessions, sometimes lasting for days, which were combined with threats, intimidation, ill-treatment, sexual violence, and torture.” In some cases, victims were executed after torture. 

After transfer and detention in the Russian Federation, victims described how they were stripped naked again, were forced to stand naked in front of others for hours, or had hands and feet tied, and underwent long beating sessions. One victim was severely beaten during two days after refusing to declare support for the Russian Federation on camera. Another victim was forced to stand naked and shout “glory to Russia” while being beaten and described beatings as a “punishment for speaking Ukrainian” and “not remembering the lyrics of the anthem of the Russian Federation””.

Rape and sexual violence

The cases of rape by Russian armed forces which the Commission are investigating are clearly identified as war crimes, with victims aged from four to over 80.

Perpetrators raped the women and girls in their homes or took them and raped them in unoccupied dwellings. In most cases, these acts also amount to torture and cruel or inhumane treatment for the victims and for relatives who were forced to watch. Other incidents of sexual violence were also documented against women, men, and girls. “

Harrowing details of cases of all the crimes identified by the Commission, as well as those linked with the impact of Russia’s aggression on children are given in the full report.  Accountability is needed, not only reports, but the evidence gathered is of undoubted importance. 

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