Ukraine

1 December 2022
Risk Level: Current Crisis
Over 17.2 million people in need of humanitarian assistance

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 6,655 civilian deaths, including over 415 children, while emphasizing that the actual figure is considerably higher. The crisis has displaced over 14 million people, including more than 7.6 million who have fled to neighboring countries.

The UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-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 in Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy oblasts. The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) has also documented the widespread use of indiscriminate weapons in populated areas, including heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems, missiles, airstrikes and illegal cluster munitions. According to the HRMMU, Ukrainian and Russian forces have committed abuses against prisoners of war, including torture and ill-treatment.

Schools, homes, water and sanitation systems and civilian shelters have been routinely targeted. Russian forces have bombed Ukrainian historical, religious and cultural sites. In Mariupol, an estimated 600 people were killed on 16 March when Russian forces launched an airstrike on the city’s Drama Theater. Buses and convoys have also been targeted, violating agreed upon humanitarian corridors. The World Health Organization has verified over 600 attacks on health care. Since the 8 October explosion of the Kerch Straight bridge, Russian forces have bombed urban centers across Ukraine, severely damaging energy-related facilities.

In areas under their control, Russian forces have perpetrated grave abuses, including summary executions and other possible war crimes. 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. There have also been reports of forced deportations of Ukrainians, including children, to Russia and forcible disappearances of local Ukrainian government officials.

Since the beginning of September, Ukrainian forces have retaken thousands of square miles of territory in the south and northeast. In response to Ukraine’s territorial gains, Russian-backed authorities held referendums from 23-27 September in areas of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts under their control. Following the referendums, Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed the areas into Russia and declared martial law.

Fighting also continues along frontlines in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, a region collectively known as Donbas where conflict has been ongoing 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. Despite multiple rounds of peace talks, the armed conflict between the separatists and the Ukrainian government has killed 14,000 people and displaced millions. International monitors have documented both sides committing violations in Donbas that may amount to war crimes, including torture, indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas and use of indiscriminate weapons.

ANALYSIS:

Russian forces have perpetrated widespread violations of International Humanitarian Law (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 of further atrocities as Russian forces target residential buildings and other civilian infrastructure.

While the invasion began on 24 February, the crisis has myriad historical, political, security and economic root causes. President 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.

Despite a deal reached via the Black Sea Grain Initiative, the conflict continues to have global implications resulting from 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 have impeded aid operations for vulnerable populations worldwide and put more pressure on populations prone to resource-related conflict.

Ukraine needs continued 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, many of which have also responded with unprecedented targeted sanctions and other economic measures. Hundreds of multinational corporations have ceased operations in Russia. Many countries have closed their airspace to Russian airlines while some states have provided Ukraine’s military with weapons.

Following Russia’s veto of a draft resolution on 25 February, the UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted a “Uniting for Peace” resolution, allowing the General Assembly (UNGA) to give recommendations. On 2 March, during an emergency special session, the UNGA condemned 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 HRC. On 12 October the UNGA adopted a resolution condemning Russia’s annexation of occupied Ukrainian territory and demanded its immediate reversal. On 14 November the UNGA adopted a resolution aimed at ensuring reparations and justice for violations of IHL in Ukraine.

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 that may prolong the conflict.

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

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

Russian and Ukrainian delegations have met in numerous rounds of negotiations but have made limited progress.

NECESSARY ACTION:

All parties to the conflict must strictly adhere to 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.

All violations of IHL and IHRL must be investigated and the 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 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. The international community should also maintain its support to Ukraine in upholding its international obligations to protect its populations, including by ensuring the territorial integrity of the country.

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