Russia’s use of ‘evacuated’ Kherson residents as human shields is a war crime
Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s that Kherson residents must be ‘evacuated’ because the civilian population should not suffer does not only lack credibility because of Russia’s unending bombing and killing of civilians throughout Ukraine. Russia began forced deportation of Ukrainian civilians soon after its full-scale invasion, and such behaviour, according to one human rights defender, bears the hallmarks of both war crimes and genocide.
Ukraine’s advance on occupied parts of Kherson oblast, including Kherson itself, is forcing the Russian invaders to attempt a withdrawal of forces from the right bank of the Dnipro River to the left (eastern) bank. Oleksandr Pavlichenko, Executive Director of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union [UHHRU], in a recent interview that Russia’s forced removal of civilians, together with its armed forces, from the right bank of Kherson to the left constitutes the use of civilians as human shields to provide cover for the armed formations being withdrawn. Such use of the civilian population as human shields is a war crime.
He is clear that the civilians are being removed by force. Civilians are placed under physical and psychological pressure to take part in such ‘evacuation’, and are also given no other option for escaping the danger from the war that Russia has unleashed.
Worth noting that Russia has already used such tactics in besieged Mariupol, making it next to impossible to evacuate to government-controlled Ukrainian territory. It soon became clear that some of those deported to Russia were then forced into providing false ‘testimony’, claiming, for example, that Ukrainian defenders had been responsible for some of the most shocking Russian war crimes (such as the bombing of a maternity hospital or of the Drama Theatre being used as a bomb shelter). Russia also appeared to be trying to populate particularly inhospitable parts of the Russian Federation through Ukrainians ‘evacuated’ from Mariupol or parts of Donbas effectively occupied since 2014.
During his interview, Pavlichenko said, where civilians are being ‘evacuated’ to Russia, the question arises of whether this is a special planned operation to move part of the population and substitute them with others. He noted that the Russians had done this after their invasion and annexation of Crimea, in order to dilute the Ukrainian population while creating a pro-Russian lobby from those brought in. Russia is thus continuing the deliberate mixing of the population carried out by the Soviet Union. Pavlichenko believes that such behaviour “bears the features of a war crime since deportation and the movement of large masses of people are carried out because of an artificially created emergency. This was planned and prepared by the Russian Federation from the outset.“ Evidence of this, he says, can be seen in the creation of camps on bordering areas (especially in parts of Donbas effectively occupied since 2014). It is Russia’s policy of filtration and its deportation of large groups of the population that Pavlichenko suggests bears the hallmarks of genocide. Russia is seeking to erase Ukrainians’ national affiliation, the identity of the particular people living on certain territory. This is essentially about blurring and diluting Ukrainian identity.
All of this has been deliberate policy since 2014 in occupied Crimea and in the Russian proxy ‘Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics’. Huge propaganda measures aim at indoctrinating the population in general, but particularly children, into viewing themselves as ‘Russians’ and at eradicating their Ukrainian identity. Russia has already begun attempts to instil the same tactics in all areas that have been or still, for now, remain under their occupation. One of the most shocking abuses is Russia’s systematic inculcation of its militarism on occupied territory. Children are essentially encouraged to want to ‘defend their motherland’, with the propaganda aimed at presenting this ‘motherland’ as being Russia, with Ukrainian children essentially encouraged to see Ukraine as ‘the enemy’
Russia’s crimes on occupied territory, and in the above-mentioned camps, are not being investigated by the International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC]. Russia is blocking any international investigators at the notorious Olenivka camp in occupied Donbas, where at least 53 Ukrainian prisoners of war were killed in a highly suspect explosion.
Mentioning this lack of international control, Pavlichenko pointed out that the Russian Red Cross, while present on occupied territory, “is not carrying out the function vested in it by ICRC. <> The Russian Red Cross is playing into Putin’s hands and working in the context of propaganda, supporting Russia’s policies.”
There will need to be an assessment of this role after the war, and work on safeguarding international humanitarian presence in military conflict and preventing the kinds of violations that do in fact constitute war crimes.
ICRC should indeed give serious consideration to its Russian branch. One example of the Russian Red Cross’s questionable activities can be seen in its engagement in the Russian propaganda campaign #МЫВМЕСТЕ [#WE’RETOGETHER]. As part of this engagement, in early October for the families of men who had been called up, and of military servicemen currently taking part in Russia’s war against Ukraine.