Russian forces have perpetrated possible war crimes and crimes against humanity during their invasion in Ukraine. Ukrainian and Russian forces have also been accused of committing potential crimes in the Donbas region since 2014.
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 1,400 civilian deaths, including over 120 children, while emphasizing the toll is likely much higher. The crisis has displaced over 10 million people, including 4.2 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 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 cities like Kharkiv, Sumy, Chernihiv, Mariupol and Kyiv. Schools, homes, water and sanitation systems, as well as buses evacuating civilians out of conflict areas have all been targeted, violating agreed upon humanitarian corridors. The World Health Organization has verified at least 80 attacks on healthcare during the conflict. Russian forces also bombed the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial site and destroyed other Ukrainian cultural sites. 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 Russian forces since 2 March, leaving at least 200,000 people without access to food, water, heat or electricity. According to local authorities, shelling has destroyed over 80 percent of residential buildings in the city. Civilians have resorted to burying the dead in mass graves. On 16 March at least 300 people were killed when Russian forces launched an airstrike on Mariupol’s Drama Theater, which had been sheltering an estimated 1,200 people. In another aerial attack, on 9 March Russian forces bombed a hospital, destroying the maternity and children’s wards.
Russian forces have also perpetrated grave abuses, including summary executions and other possible war crimes, in areas under their control. Following the retreat of Russian forces from the town of Bucha, near Kyiv, on 31 March at least 410 bodies were discovered, many of which had been buried in mass graves. While many of the dead had been killed by Russian shelling, Ukrainian officials reported that some had been killed and left in the street while others were bound and/or blindfolded before being shot.
Prior to the 24 February invasion, conflict had been ongoing in areas of eastern Ukraine since 2014, in parts of the Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts, an area collectively known as Donbas. 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 bring about a resolution to the conflict.
International monitors have documented both sides committing violations in Donbas that may amount to war crimes, including the use of torture, indiscriminately shelling civilian areas and use of indiscriminate weapons. Amidst the ongoing Russian invasion, the HRMMU has reported on allegations of Ukrainian forces indiscriminately shelling civilians in Donbas.
The Russian government has also cracked down on media and civilians protesting the war. Authorities have arrested 15,000 protesters, including children, in cities across Russia. President Vladimir Putin has called for a “self-purification” of those who do not support the war, stating those in opposition are “scum” and “traitors.”
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 long-standing crisis has multiple historical, political, security and economic root causes. President Putin has indicated repeatedly that he believes that Russia and Ukraine are one in the same given their long-shared history and close 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 at risk of famine 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.
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.
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 UN Security Council resolution on 25 February, the Council adopted a “Uniting for Peace” resolution, allowing the UN General Assembly to give recommendations. On 2 March, during an emergency special session, the General Assembly adopted Resolution ES‑11/1 condemning Russia’s use of force in Ukraine and the subsequent violations of IHL and IHRL. The UN General Assembly has also passed Resolution ES-11/L.2 demanding humanitarian access to civilians in need across Ukraine.
On 4 March the UN Human Rights Council established a Commission of Inquiry to investigate systematic violations and abuses of IHRL and IHL.
On 2 March the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court open an investigation into the situation in Ukraine. The Court previously found evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity during a preliminary examination of the 2013 protests and armed conflict in Donbas.
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.
All parties to the conflict must strictly adhere to the principles of IHL and ensure the protection of civilians in conflict areas. Parties to the conflict should continue to work towards achieving an immediate ceasefire to allow for civilians to flee besieged areas and unfettered delivery of aid.
Amidst the deepening crisis, the international community must continue to increase its pressure on Russian authorities to halt the invasion, in line with the ICJ’s provisional measures.