Ukraine

1 June 2022
Risk Level: Current Crisis
More than 14 million displaced since 24 February

Russian forces have perpetrated possible war crimes and crimes against humanity during their invasion in Ukraine. Ukrainian and Russian forces have also committed potential crimes in the Donbas region since 2014.

BACKGROUND:

Since 24 February 2022, when Russian Armed Forces invaded Ukraine, cities and towns in central, eastern and southern Ukraine have been bombarded with indiscriminate explosive weapons, causing a massive humanitarian and human rights crisis. The UN has verified more than 4,100 civilian deaths, including over 260 children, while emphasizing the toll is likely thousands higher. The crisis has displaced over 14 million people, including 6 million who have fled to other countries.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has stated that Russia’s actions in Ukraine may amount to war crimes. The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) has documented the widespread use of indiscriminate weapons in populated areas, including shelling from heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems, missiles, air strikes and illegal cluster munitions, as Russian forces advance on major cities, including the capital, Kyiv. Schools, homes, water and sanitation systems and civilian shelters have been directly targeted.  Buses and convoys have also been targeted, violating agreed upon humanitarian corridors. The World Health Organization has verified at least 215 attacks on healthcare during the conflict. Russian forces have also bombed Ukrainian historical, religious and cultural sites, including the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial.

In areas under their control, Russian forces have perpetrated grave abuses, including summary executions and other possible war crimes. Over 1,000 bodies were discovered in previously Russian occupied territory around Kyiv, some of which had been buried in mass graves. Ukrainian officials reported that many had been fatally shot and/or bound and blindfolded before being killed. There have also been reports of forced deportations of Ukrainians, including children, to Russia, as well as torture, rape and sexual violence, and forcible disappearances of local Ukrainian government officials.

The south-eastern port city of Mariupol has been encircled by encroaching Russian forces since 2 March, leaving thousands of people trapped without access to food, water, heat or electricity. According to local authorities, shelling has destroyed over 80 percent of residential buildings in the city. On 9 March Russian forces bombed a hospital, destroying the maternity and children’s wards. In another aerial attack, an estimated 600 people were killed on 16 March when Russian forces launched an airstrike on Mariupol’s Drama Theater, which had been sheltering an estimated 1,200 people.

Following the retreat of Russian forces from areas in central Ukraine, on 19 April Russia launched an offensive focused on eastern Ukraine, in parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, an area collectively known as Donbas. Prior to the 24 February invasion, conflict had been ongoing in Donbas since 2014. Fighting began after a pro-European change of power in Kyiv prompted the Russian government to begin militarily supporting majority-ethnic Russian separatists in Donbas’ eastern most areas. The resulting armed conflict between the separatists and the Ukrainian government has killed 14,000 people and displaced millions. Multiple rounds of peace agreements have failed to resolve the conflict.

International monitors have documented both sides committing violations in Donbas that may amount to war crimes, including torture, indiscriminately shelling civilian areas and using indiscriminate weapons.

ANALYSIS:

Russian forces have perpetrated widespread violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL), some of which may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Civilians in Ukraine continue to be at risk of further atrocities as Russian forces wantonly shell residential buildings and other civilian infrastructure.

While the invasion began on 24 February, the crisis has multiple historical, political, security and economic root causes. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly asserted his belief that Russia and Ukraine are one and the same given their shared history and cultural similarities, a notion Ukrainians largely reject. Nevertheless, President Putin’s claims of Ukrainian forces committing genocide against ethnic Russian populations in Donbas have been largely rebuked by international monitors present in the region who have found no evidence of such actions.

The conflict has global implications resulting from unprecedented economic sanctions and Russia and Ukraine’s role as major exporters of grain and cooking oils. More than half of the World Food Programme’s wheat supply is provided by Russia and Ukraine. Increasing scarcity and costs will impede aid operations for vulnerable populations worldwide, as well as put more pressure on populations prone to resource-related conflict.

Ukraine needs international support to be able to effectively uphold its responsibility to protect its population.

INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE:

Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has been widely condemned by states, as well as regional and intergovernmental organizations. Numerous states and regional organizations have also responded with targeted sanctions and other economic measures. Hundreds of multinational corporations have announced they will cease operations in Russia, while many countries have closed their airspace to Russian airlines.

Russian and Ukrainian delegations have met in numerous rounds of negotiations, but have made limited progress. During April UN Secretary-General António Guterres traveled to Moscow and Kyiv in an attempt to broker peace.

Despite the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) decision to refrain from military involvement in the conflict, many NATO member states and others have supplied Ukraine’s military with weapons.

Following Russia’s veto of a draft UNSC resolution on 25 February, the Council adopted a “Uniting for Peace” resolution, allowing the UN General Assembly (UNGA) to give recommendations. On 2 March, during an emergency special session, the UNGA adopted Resolution ES‑11/1 condemning Russia’s use of force in Ukraine and the subsequent violations of IHL and IHRL. The UNGA also passed a resolution demanding humanitarian access to civilians in need and on 7 April voted to suspend Russia from its seat on the UN Human Rights Council (HRC).

On 26 February Ukraine filed a case with the International Court of Justice (ICJ), asking for the Court’s clarification under Article IX of the Genocide Convention. On 16 March the ICJ imposed provisional measures, calling on Russia to suspend military operations and for military units to cease advancing, as well as calling on all parties to refrain from actions furthering the conflict.

On 2 March the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened an investigation into the situation in Ukraine. The Court previously found evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity during a preliminary examination of protests in 2013 and the armed conflict in Donbas.

On 4 March the HRC established a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) to investigate systematic violations and abuses of IHRL and IHL. On 12 May the HRC adopted a resolution mandating the CoI to investigate crimes committed around Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy in line with its mandate.

NECESSARY ACTION:

All parties to the conflict must strictly adhere to the principles of IHL and ensure the protection of civilians in conflict areas. In the absence of a negotiated resolution to the conflict, parties should agree to an immediate ceasefire to allow civilians to flee besieged areas and for the unfettered delivery of aid.

Amidst the deepening crisis, the international community must continue to increase its pressure on Russian authorities to halt their advances in line with the ICJ’s provisional measures.

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