31 May 2024
Risk Level: Current Crisis

Russian forces have perpetrated possible war crimes and crimes against humanity since their invasion of Ukraine. Ukrainian forces have also committed potential war crimes.


Since 24 February 2022, when Russian Armed Forces invaded Ukraine, cities and towns across the country have been bombarded with indiscriminate explosive weapons. The UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Ukraine has documented evidence of war crimes committed against the civilian population by Russian forces, including indiscriminate attacks, torture and sexual and gender-based violence. The UN has verified more than 10,946 civilian deaths since the start of the conflict while emphasizing that there are likely thousands of unverified casualties. The conflict has caused a massive humanitarian crisis, displacing at least 10 million people, including more than 6.3 million who fled to neighboring countries.

The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) has documented the widespread use of heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems, unguided missiles, airstrikes and illegal cluster munitions in populated areas. Schools, homes, water and sanitation systems, energy-related infrastructure and civilian shelters have been routinely targeted. The World Health Organization has verified over 1,773 attacks on healthcare since February 2022. Russian forces have bombed and pillaged historical and religious sites, and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has verified damage to at least 351 cultural sites. Since Russia suspended its participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative on 17 July 2023, Russian forces have carried out a series of attacks on Ukraine’s port and shipping infrastructure, destroying facilities and hundreds of thousands of metric tons of grain destined for export.

In areas under their control, Russian forces have perpetrated grave abuses that may amount to war crimes, including killings, rape and torture. Mass graves and burial sites have been found in areas retaken from Russian forces. According to the CoI, the systematic use of torture in Russian-occupied areas may amount to crimes against humanity. Ukrainian and Russian forces have committed abuses against prisoners of war, including torture and ill-treatment, according to the HRMMU. The UN has documented violations of international law by mercenary operatives from the Wagner Group, including enforced disappearances, ill-treatment and extrajudicial executions of prisoners of war.

The UN and the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe have verified evidence of grave crimes against children, including killing and maiming, as well as unlawful transfers and deportations of thousands of children, that may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity. In March 2023 the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Commissioner for Children’s Rights in the Office of the President of Russia, Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, for their alleged responsibility for the deportation and transfer of population from occupied areas of Ukraine to Russia.

Intense fighting continues in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, a region collectively known as Donbas, and international monitors have documented both sides committing violations that may amount to war crimes. Conflict has been ongoing in Donbas since 2014 after a pro-European change of power in Kyiv prompted the Russian government to militarily support majority-ethnic Russian separatists. An estimated 14,000 people were killed and millions displaced between 2014-2022 and the ICC found evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has been widely condemned and many states and intergovernmental organizations have responded with unprecedented targeted sanctions, economic measures and other restrictions. Some states have provided Ukraine’s military with weapons, including banned cluster munitions. The UN General Assembly has passed numerous resolutions that have demanded humanitarian access to civilians, condemned and demanded the immediate reversal of Russia’s annexation of occupied Ukrainian territory and called for reparations and justice for violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Meanwhile, after Ukraine filed a case asking for clarification under Article IX of the Genocide Convention, on 16 March 2022 the International Court of Justice (ICJ) imposed provisional measures, calling on Russia to suspend military operations and cease advancing, as well as requesting all parties to refrain from actions that may prolong the conflict. The ICC also opened a field office in Kyiv to assist with the prosecution of over 100,000 cases of war crimes documented by the Ukrainian authorities.


Since late December daily Russian air and drone strikes have taken an increasing toll on Ukraine’s civilians. On 15 March 2024 a series of Russian missiles struck civilian infrastructure in Odesa, killing at least 20 people and injuring at least 73 others in a so-called “double tap” attack that also killed and injured seven emergency responders. The HRMMU verified that at least 604 civilians were killed or injured in March, a 20 percent increase from February. This includes at least 57 children, making March the deadliest month for children in Ukraine since July 2023. Since 10 May a new Russian offensive in the northeastern Kharkiv region has killed at least 45 civilians and forced thousands to evacuate.

On 5 March the ICC issued arrest warrants for Lieutenant General Sergei Kobylash of the Russian Armed Forces and Admiral Viktor Sokolov of the Russian Navy for the war crimes of directing attacks at civilian objects and causing excessive incidental harm to civilians, as well as the crime against humanity of ‘inhumane acts.’

On 2 February the ICJ delivered its judgement in the case brought by Ukraine against Russia. While the Court determined it cannot adjudicate on whether Russia’s invasion violated its obligations under the Genocide Convention, the Court will investigate Russia’s allegations that Ukraine committed a genocide against the Russian-speaking population in Donbas, which is one of Russia’s justifications for the invasion.


Russian forces have perpetrated widespread violations of IHL and International Human Rights Law (IHRL), many of which may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Civilians in Ukraine continue to be at risk as Russian forces target residential buildings and other civilian infrastructure with drone and rocket strikes. Ukrainian forces have also perpetrated violations and abuses of international law as they continue a counteroffensive to regain territory. Although the conflict is stagnant in Donbas, civilians on either side of the front lines remain at increased risk as both Russian and Ukrainian forces continue to use banned cluster munitions.

Parties to the conflict have utilized rhetoric that can amount to incitement to violence, increasing the risk of ethnic-based targeting. The CoI is investigating rhetoric utilized in Russian state and other media that may constitute incitement to genocide.


    • Failure to adequately halt and address violations of IHL and IHRL in eastern Ukraine since at least 2014.
    • Russia’s pattern of violence against civilians, their property, livelihoods and cultural symbols and blatant disregard for IHL.
    • Large-scale airstrikes and use of long-range weapons by Russian forces and counteroffensive by Ukrainian forces.
    • Increasing polarization, marginalization of minority populations, propaganda and inflammatory speech.
    • Impunity for orchestrators and perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity.


Parties to the conflict must strictly adhere to IHL and ensure the protection of civilians. All violations must be investigated and perpetrators held accountable. Legal proceedings for those accused of crimes during the conflict must be transparent and respect international standards of due process and proportionality.

Amidst the protracted crisis, the international community must continue to pressure Russian authorities to halt their aggression in line with the ICJ’s provisional measures, including by closing loopholes in sanctions on dual-use items and third country imports and exports. The international community should maintain its support to Ukraine in upholding its international obligations to protect its populations, including by ensuring the territorial integrity of the country, within the parameters of international law.


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