Ukraine

30 November 2023
Risk Level: Current Crisis

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

BACKGROUND:

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 10,000 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 10.9 million people, including more than 5.8 million who fled to neighboring countries, and leaving 17.6 million in need of assistance.

The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) has documented the widespread use of heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems, missiles, airstrikes and illegal cluster munitions in populated areas. Schools, homes, water and sanitation systems and civilian shelters have been routinely targeted. The World Health Organization has verified 1,390 attacks on healthcare since February 2022, the highest number verified in any conflict. Russian forces have bombed and pillaged Ukrainian historical, religious and cultural sites, with UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) verifying damage to at least 295 cultural sites since February 2022.

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 containing at least 1,500 bodies have been found in areas retaken from Russian forces in Bucha, Izium and Lyman. According to the CoI, the systematic use of torture in Russian-occupied areas, as well as the wave of attacks by Russian forces on Ukraine’s energy-related infrastructure since October 2022, may amount to crimes against humanity. According to the HRMMU, Ukrainian and Russian forces have also committed abuses against prisoners of war, including torture and ill-treatment. 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. On 17 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.

Fighting has escalated 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 but has been further exacerbated by the invasion of Ukraine. An estimated 14,000 people were killed and millions displaced between 2014-2022, while 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 calling on all parties to refrain from actions that may prolong the conflict.

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS:

On 14 September the ICC 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 Russia suspended its participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative on 17 July, Russian forces have carried out a series of attacks on the city of Odesa, demolishing critical port infrastructure. As of 13 October, Russia has destroyed 150 port facilities and 300,000 metric tons of grain destined for export. The strikes have also killed and wounded dozens of civilians and destroyed 25 heritage sites across the city center, a designated UNESCO World Heritage site.

Attacks on civilians by Russian forces have increased significantly since October. On 4 October the HRMMU said on average, six civilians are killed and 20 injured each day. In one of the deadliest incidents in the conflict, on 5 October a Russian airstrike killed at least 59 people in Hroza, Kharkiv region, eradicating one fifth of the town’s population. From 1-2 November Russian forces shelled 118 settlements in 10 regions, marking the most extensive shelling in 2023.

On 2 November the United States announced new sanctions against hundreds of individuals and entities targeting future Russian energy projects and manufacturing of suicide drones, as well as closing pre-existing loopholes for dual-use goods.

ANALYSIS:

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.

The breakdown of the Black Sea Grain Initiative has global implications due to economic sanctions and Russia and Ukraine’s role as major exporters of grain and cooking oils. Increasing scarcity and costs have impeded aid operations for vulnerable populations worldwide and put more pressure on situations prone to resource-related conflict.

RISK ASSESSMENT:

    • 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 to recapture Russian-occupied territory.
    • Increasing polarization, marginalization of minority populations, propaganda and inflammatory speech.
    • Impunity for orchestrators and perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

NECESSARY ACTION:

Parties to the conflict must strictly adhere to IHL and ensure the protection of civilians. All IHL and IHRL 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.

All parties should continue negotiations aimed at resuming safety guarantees under the Black Sea Grain Initiative.

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.

GET INVOLVED

Sign up for our newsletter and stay up to date on R2P news and alerts

Follow us on social media

CONTACT US

Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect

Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue, Suite 5203
New York, NY 10016-4309, USA

Phone: +1 212-817-1929 | info@globalr2p.org
R2P Resources & Statements