On Monday, 10 October, Russian airstrikes hit 20 cities across Ukraine, killing at least 26 people and wounding over 100 others. According to Ukrainian officials, Russian forces launched at least 112 cruise missiles and 37 drones. The bombardment targeted power plants, bridges and civilian infrastructure, and left entire cities without power, water or heat. Strikes in the capital city, Kyiv, landed in tourist sites, next to a children’s playground and in busy intersections during rush hour. Ravina Shamdasani, Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stressed that, “these strikes may have violated the principles of the conduct of hostilities under international humanitarian law,” adding that intentionally targeting civilians and civilian objects “amounts to a war crime.”
The offensive likely marked the largest aerial assault since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine on 24 February. UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said that, “nearly eight months later, lives and civilian infrastructure are being inexcusably destroyed. Today [10 October] is another day of anguish for the Ukrainian people. As we speak, my colleagues are reporting to me horrifying strikes on urban centers in Kyiv, Dnipro, Lviv, Zaporizhzhia, Chernihiv, Odesa and elsewhere.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin said in an address on 10 October that the strikes were in retaliation for the 8 October bombing of the Kerch Straight bridge that connects mainland Russia with Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014 amidst international condemnation. Ukraine has yet to take responsibility for the explosion, but welcomed the damage.
The strikes on Ukraine have received international condemnation and calls for de-escalation. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed to the international community for air defense systems to assist in protecting civilians. In response, members of the G-7 – an inter-governmental political forum comprised of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and United States – released a statement condemning the attacks and recalling that “indiscriminate attacks on innocent civilian populations constitute a war crime.” Prior to the 10 October offensive the UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine documented evidence of war crimes, including indiscriminate attacks on civilians, torture and sexual and gender-based violence, since the start of the conflict.
As the war in Ukraine continues unabated, civilians are paying the ultimate price. Over 7 million Ukrainians have fled to neighboring countries, while another 6.2 million remain internally displaced. Sarah Hunter, Ukraine Expert at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, said, “protecting populations in Ukraine from atrocities must be paramount to all political discourse around the conflict. The international community must utilize all avenues to push for an end to this conflict, provide aid for those in need and pursue justice for the thousands of victims and their families.”
Armed groups, as well as defense and security forces deployed to combat them, have perpetrated “widespread” torture in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), according to a new report published by the UN Joint Human Rights Office (UNJHRO) in the DRC and the peacekeeping operation in the country (MONUSCO). The report covers the period April 2019 to April 2022 and documented at least 3,126 acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, while acknowledging that torture is likely underreported. Members of armed groups committed approximately 1,833 of the cases of torture, while defense and security forces were responsible for 1,293 cases, leading to 2,295 victims, including civilians and captured members of armed groups.
The majority of cases of torture were documented in conflict-affected provinces of eastern DRC, including Ituri, North Kivu, South Kivu and Tanganyika. Armed groups often committed torture at illegal barriers along main roads, during attacks on homes and displacement sites or during ambushes against civilians suspected of collaborating with the defense and security forces or rival armed groups. UNJHRO documented how torture is also a “frequent practice” in the context of restrictions on democratic and civic space, with human rights defenders and members of civil society working on issues of peace, human rights or health as the primary targets. These cases of torture were accompanied by other violations, including arbitrary arrests and illegal detention.
Under international law, torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment are illegal and can amount to a war crime and/or crime against humanity. Acting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Nada Al-Nashif, stressed, “torture can never be justified, no matter the circumstances or the context. The DRC authorities must act with urgency and determination to put an end to this scourge.”
The DRC government has taken some steps to address torture, including ratifying the Additional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and establishing the National Committee for the Prevention of Torture, as well as engaging with the UN Committee against Torture and the Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review to align domestic legislation with international law regarding the prevention and eradication of torture. Despite these efforts and the scale of abuses documented in the latest UNJHRO report, only two army officers, 12 police officers and 75 members of armed groups were convicted of torture during the reporting period.
The DRC government must tackle impunity – which has created an environment conducive for torture – by investigating violations and strengthening judicial proceedings. Congolese authorities should implement a survivor-centered approach, including by providing support and redress to victims. UNJHRO and MONUSCO should continue supporting national human rights institutions and implementing technical assistance programs regarding the prevention of torture.
Last week marked five years since extreme violence erupted in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province. Since October 2017 an armed extremist group known locally as “Al-Shabaab” and loosely affiliated with the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has engaged in a violent insurgency concentrated in Cabo Delgado. The group’s campaign has been characterized by attacks against civilians, including beheadings and sexual and gender-based violence, as well as the recruitment of child soldiers and the destruction of civilian infrastructure. Five years on, over 6,200 people have been killed and, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the violence has forcibly displaced nearly 1 million people.
After a relative lull in violence between mid-July to late August, attacks escalated during September, spilling over into Nampula province, south of Cabo Delgado. In one particularly violent incident, armed insurgents beheaded at least six people, kidnapped three and burned a church on 6 September in Nampula. Fatal attacks in Ancuabe and Chiure districts, Cabo Delgado, as well as in several villages in Erati and Memba districts, Nampula, destroyed houses and civilian infrastructure, including health facilities. UNHCR estimated that violence in Nampula displaced over 12,000 people during September while local authorities have claimed the number may be closer to 38,600. Those fleeing, the majority of whom were women and children, reported leaving due to attacks or fear of attacks. Since the start of October, members of Al-Shabaab have continued to engage in sporadic raids around Cabo Delgado, beheading civilians and burning buildings.
UNHCR Spokesperson, Matthew Saltmarsh, noted that, “extreme violence and displacement have had a devastating impact on the population. People have witnessed their loved ones being killed, beheaded, and raped, and their houses and other infrastructure burned to the ground… The humanitarian situation across Cabo Delgado has continued to deteriorate.” Although UNHCR has determined that Cabo Delgado remains too volatile and dangerous for the safe return of civilians, displaced people have begun returning to their areas of origin in recent weeks.
Jaclyn Streitfeld-Hall, Director of Policy and Research at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, said that, “despite efforts by regional forces to aid Mozambique in combating Al-Shabaab over the past year, civilians continue to face a heightened risk of atrocities amidst renewed attacks. It is imperative that UNHCR, as well as Mozambique’s security forces and their regional partners enhance their efforts to address growing protection needs and ensure the protection of civilians and displaced persons, including through increasing patrols in areas vulnerable to attack.”