Since Russia’s 24 February invasion of Ukraine, violence has spread across cities resulting in increasing civilian casualties from the use of indiscriminate explosive weapons. From 24 February to 8 March the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) verified 516 civilian deaths, including 37 children, and hundreds of people injured. OHCHR has warned that the actual death toll is undoubtedly much higher. According to the World Health Organization, at least 20 attacks on healthcare facilities, workers and ambulances have been recorded. Deliberate attacks against civilians and healthcare, as well as the use of indiscriminate weapons in civilian areas, are forbidden under international law and may amount to war crimes and/or crimes against humanity.
More than two million people have fled so far, with millions more trapped or unable to flee. On 6 March Russian forces repeatedly shelled an intersection on an evacuation route in the city of Irpin, killing eight people, including two children. Although Ukrainian and Russian forces agreed on humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to flee from besieged cities like Kharkiv, Mariupol and Sumy, shelling has continued. On 8 March Russian forces reportedly shelled designated evacuation routes in Mariupol, leaving hundreds of thousands trapped without food and water.
On 7 March the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Martin Griffiths, said that, “simply put, millions of lives shattered… even as the TV cameras roll, many can’t flee in safety… It’s been 11 days of escalating violence, fear and pain.” Griffiths alerted that UN agencies are unable to meet growing humanitarian needs.
The international community has continued to rapidly respond to the crisis. On 3 March representatives of the International Criminal Court arrived in Ukraine to begin the Court’s investigation of the situation. On 4 March the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) established a Commission of Inquiry to investigate systematic violations and abuses of human rights and International Humanitarian Law. On 7 March the International Court of Justice held its first hearing in the case Ukraine brought against Russia under Article IX of the Genocide Convention.
Amidst the ongoing conflict, member states must continue to assist refugees, as well as support aid delivery and the evacuation of civilians. The UN General Assembly should suspend Russia from its seat on the HRC for violating its fundamental responsibilities as an HRC member. The UN Security Council must work on an agreement ensuring safe passage and the delivery of humanitarian aid in conflict affected areas. Parties to the conflict should reconvene ceasefire talks and adhere to agreed-upon humanitarian pauses.
Since October 2021 Myanmar’s (Burma) military – the Tatmadaw – has concentrated its ongoing scorched earth campaign in Sagaing Region, as well as other areas with strong opposition. On 7 March local media reported that the military may have plans to escalate its offensive and launch a so-called “kill all, torch all” campaign in Sagaing Region. News reports indicate that clashes have broken out daily in Sagaing Region in recent weeks and that the military allegedly wants to eliminate all resistance in the region before the annual Armed Forces Day on 27 March.
The Tatmadaw has recently escalated its raids on villages in Sagaing Region, including with air strikes, the torching of civilian infrastructure and killing of civilians. In February alone the military killed at least 47 civilians suspected of supporting armed resistance groups in seven of the region’s townships. On 26 February a large group of civilians, including at least 80 children, were detained amidst clashes with local resistance groups in Chin Pone village in Yinmabin township, Sagaing Region. The Tatmadaw allegedly detained the civilians as human shields against a counterattack from a local armed resistance group. The use of human shields is a violation of International Humanitarian Law and a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
Amidst the intensifying assault, the region’s internet blackout has been expanded, cutting internet access “indefinitely” to all of Sagaing Region’s 34 townships, except for four urban centers. Communities are becoming isolated and residents have reported that the lack of internet access has limited their capacity to flee and avoid the military’s raids.
Liam Scott, Research Associate at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, stated that, “the military has already cracked down especially hard on Sagaing Region, so a major offensive would be devastating for the region’s civilian population. The ‘kill all, torch all’ rhetoric presents a grave warning that the military is preparing to indiscriminately target civilians and civilian infrastructure.” To limit the Tatmadaw’s capacity to perpetrate atrocities in Sagaing Region and throughout the country, the UN Security Council should urgently impose an arms embargo on Myanmar, and member states should immediately impose sanctions on Myanmar’s oil and gas sector.
On 4 March the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA) announced the opening of an investigation into allegations that at least 35 people were killed in Diabaly commune, Ségou Region. A video circulating on social media last week shows dozens of burned bodies with their eyes blindfolded and hands bound together. Some of the victims appear to have holes in the back of their heads. According to a local official, the bodies were found on 1 March and are believed to be people who were arrested earlier by Malian soldiers. The Malian Armed Forces have denied allegations of their role in the killings and announced their own investigation into the situation.
Malian defense and security forces have been fighting Islamist armed groups in Diabaly for years. Fulani villages in central Mali have frequently been targeted and persecuted due to their perceived support for Islamist armed groups. Although Islamist armed groups and community self-defense militias are the primary sources of violence and insecurity in central Mali, defense and security forces have also committed atrocities. The UN has previously accused Malian soldiers of war crimes, including targeted killings, torture and rape, during the decade-long crisis in the country.
Despite counterterrorism and military operations, the security situation in Mali has continued to deteriorate. The center and north of the country are marked by increasing attacks targeting civilians and peacekeepers. Following a visit to the country in February, Alioune Tine, UN Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Mali, emphasized that, “the international and African community must recognize the need to rethink security responses in the Sahel and I call for the development of more integrated security strategies, focused on the protection of civilian populations and their fundamental human rights.”
MINUSMA is one of the largest and most dangerous UN peacekeeping operations, with 154 peacekeepers killed in hostile acts since 2013, including 20 in 2021. On 7 March two peacekeepers were killed by a roadside bomb in central Mali. Targeting UN peacekeepers may constitute war crimes under international law.
It is essential that the Malian transitional authorities ensure their operations against Islamist armed groups do not further exacerbate inter-communal tensions and are undertaken in strict compliance with international humanitarian and human rights law. Malian authorities, with the support of MINUSMA, must increase their security presence in central Mali and strengthen capacity to prevent future atrocities. All attacks against civilians and MINUSMA must be properly investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice. Ending the current climate of impunity is crucial.
Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
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