July 5, 2023
Western-Backed Atrocities in Ukraine (by Irfan Chowdhury)
The latest report produced by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), titled, ‘Detention of civilians in the context of the armed attack by the Russian Federation against Ukraine’, released on 27 June 2023, documents egregious human rights violations carried out by both Russian and Ukrainian forces, albeit on differing quantitative scales. The period of documentation is from 24 February 2022 to 23 May 2023.
The majority of violations documented by OHCHR are on the Russian side, but Ukrainian forces are also found to have committed egregious crimes against detained civilians. OHCHR states that on both sides, it “has documented grave and wide-ranging violations of IHRL [International Human Rights Law] and IHL [International Humanitarian Law] against conflict-related civilian detainees”, and it has “identified patterns of conduct which have resulted in arbitrary detention, as well as further human rights violations including torture, ill-treatment and enforced disappearances”. OHCHR notes that “While such conduct was found in relation to both parties to the conflict, there was greater prevalence of conduct attributed to forces of the Russian Federation”. In my estimation, the OHCHR report is credible and trustworthy, as it goes into detail regarding both sides’ violations, and even documents how Ukraine has unjustly imprisoned its own citizens for simply distributing humanitarian aid with the help of the Russian occupation authorities. It is significant that while Russia is confirmed to be the worse offender overall, Ukraine is nonetheless still responsible for “grave and wide-ranging violations”, and for “patterns of conduct” that have resulted in such violations, albeit on a smaller scale. This has serious moral and legal implications for the Western states (particularly the US and Britain) that are directly aiding the Ukrainian war effort, and are thus complicit in the violations endemic in that war effort.
While Russian violations have received endless coverage in Western media, Ukrainian violations have received very little, despite these implications for the West. OHCHR details one such case of a civilian who was held incommunicado and tortured by the Ukrainian SBU:
“In May 2022, a civilian was held for seven days in an unofficial place of detention within the local SBU office in Kryvyi Rih, where he was tortured for three consecutive days. After receiving the results of a polygraph test he was forced to take, SBU officers beat him on his head, ribs and legs. They stripped him and threatened to cut off his genitals, rape him and send the video to his children”.
OHCHR confirms multiple horrific torture methods used by Ukrainian forces against civilians:
“Of those conflict-related detainees interviewed, 43 (34 men and 9 women) gave credible and reliable accounts of torture and ill-treatment of by law enforcement officers, members of the armed forces, or guards in unofficial places of detention or – to a much lesser extent – in official pre-trial detention facilities. Forty detainees reported being tortured or ill-treated during interrogations, mainly during the period immediately following their arrest and prior to being brought before court and put in an official place of pre-trial detention. Methods included beatings, electrocution with tasers, sexual violence, including beating of sexual and reproductive organs, forced nudity, threats of genital mutilation and rape against detainees or their loved ones, threats of execution, threats with loaded guns of being shot in the limbs, and threats of being brought to the front line and abandoned there. Detainees told OHCHR that torture and ill-treatment were used to extract confessions or information, or to otherwise make the detainees cooperate, to extort money and property, as well as to punish, humiliate and intimidate”.
Furthermore, “OHCHR documented poor conditions of detention in many unofficial places of detention” run by Ukrainian forces; “Of 65 detainees held in such places of detention, 17 reported that detainees often slept on the floor or sitting on chairs and were not provided with sufficient food”. Moreover, “In several cases, the detainee’s hands were tied overnight or were strapped to radiators”. OHCHR is thus “concerned that some of the conditions of detention may have constituted torture or ill-treatment under IHRL [International Human Rights Law]”. It should be noted that these are not isolated cases; OHCHR specifically confirms that poor conditions were found “in many unofficial places of detention” (emphasis added), and further confirms that “A significant number of cases of arbitrary detention of male civilians [carried out by Ukrainian forces] documented by OHCHR also amounted to enforced disappearance” (emphasis added). What happened in these cases of enforced disappearance is that “law enforcement officers, mainly from the SBU, detained individuals without court authorization; held them incommunicado for several days, sometimes transferring them to one or several unofficial places of detention”, and further “stripped them of the right to legal counsel; and left their loved ones uninformed of their fate or whereabouts”. Furthermore, two victims of enforced disappearance are still missing.
The first victim who is still missing is “a young journalist who had been a defendant in a conflict-related case since 2017, and who was abducted and tortured back in 2017 by police officers in Kramatorsk”. He was abducted again last year, and has not been seen again since:
“On 27 March 2022, he was apprehended on the street by several men believed to be law enforcement officers (judging from their uniform), who put him on the ground, took his walking stick (he had a disability), and dragged him behind the fence of a local mall. Despite his family’s requests, no law enforcement authority has confirmed either his apprehension or detention. Since 28 March 2022, the National Police has been investigating the incident as an abduction, but not as enforced disappearance, with no known progress”.
This case is particularly shocking, because the victim is a “young journalist” who has apparently been disappeared by Ukrainian government forces, and yet the American and British press have been entirely silent on this case. Given the fact that our governments are providing a huge amount of support to the Ukrainian government, we have an obligation to speak up when the recipients of that support carry out egregious human rights violations such as this, particularly when they entail serious attacks on press freedom, with a young journalist now missing and his worried family left in the dark as to his whereabouts. There has been no journalistic solidarity in this case – just as there has been almost none in the case of Julian Assange, who is being arbitrarily detained and tortured in the heart of London.
The second case follows the same pattern, and reveals similar flaws in the police’s response:
“In the second case, the former head of Novoluhanske village, who had been a defendant in a 2019 conflict-related case, was apprehended near his home on 10 April 2022, in front of his six-year-old son. Five armed men in uniform forced him into a car and drove him away. Despite numerous requests by his family, his fate and whereabouts remain unknown. Since 11 April 2022, the National Police has been investigating the case as an abduction under two theories: abduction by members of armed groups and staging of the kidnapping by the victim himself. The investigators have not considered the possibility that the victim was subjected to enforced disappearance by State agents”.
It should be further noted that OHCHR confirms that a child was arbitrarily detained by Ukrainian forces; victims included “57 men, 17 women and 1 boy”. This corresponds with previous findings by OHCHR from this year, that a 17-year-old boy from Donetsk was detained by members of territorial defence forces and then severely mistreated by the SBU:
“OHCHR is particularly concerned about the ill-treatment of a 17-year-old boy who was detained by members of territorial defence forces and handed over to the SBU in Donetsk region in April . Under threat of death and violence to his family, the boy was forced to confess on video-camera that he had transmitted the positions of Ukrainian armed forces to Russian intelligence. The boy was not informed about his right to legal aid or offered a lawyer. He was held in solitary confinement at a temporary detention facility for three days, during which he was fed only once, had no access to potable water and slept on a bare plank bed. After his transfer to a pre-trial detention facility, two guards threatened to beat him up for allegedly being a ‘separatist’. He was accused of state treason punishable by 15 years or life imprisonment, and the proceedings in his case have been held in camera”.
OHCHR states that it “is not aware of completion of criminal investigations launched by Ukrainian authorities into actions of Ukrainian State actors alleged to be involved in arbitrary detentions or enforced disappearances of conflict-related detainees”. Most of these abuses appear to have been carried out by the SBU, which is particularly troubling given that the CIA and Britain’s MI6 have a close relationship with the SBU, and furthermore have a very recent track record of involvement in torture. This raises serious questions about US and British intelligence support for the abuses that the SBU has been carrying out.
It is bad enough that there has been practically no outcry in the US or Britain about any of these violations, which include torture, sexual abuse, and enforced disappearance of civilians by Western-backed forces in Ukraine; even if one supports the war, the fact that our governments are facilitating such violations should be deeply troubling. However, one incident in particular that is detailed in the OHCHR report should be a cause of scandal in the West, as it involved really serious abuses against Russian civilians by the Ukrainian state:
“OHCHR previously documented the case of 87 civilian Russian sailors (79 men and 8 women) who were arbitrarily detained on 24 February 2022 while their vessel was docked in the port of Izmail (Odesa region). Ukrainian armed forces prohibited them from disembarking for approximately eight months. The detention appeared to lack legal basis, as the sailors were not charged with any criminal offence, nor did Ukrainian authorities provide legal basis for the detention or otherwise justify its necessity for security reasons, as required under the Fourth Geneva Convention. In addition, in contravention of requirements under IHRL and IHL [International Humanitarian Law], the sailors were not informed of the reasons for their detention and were not able to challenge its legality. On 23 August 2022, one sailor reportedly died because he was not provided with adequate medical care to treat his chronic health condition. After this incident, several sailors, including all the women, were released.
On 7 and 8 September 2022, OHCHR attempted to visit the sailors, but Ukrainian authorities denied access. On 17 October 2022, the remaining sailors were exchanged during a prisoner exchange between the Russian Federation and Ukraine”.
OHCHR notes that “While this case does not represent a wider pattern as such, it merits particular attention given the high number of individuals arbitrarily detained and the severe consequence of the death of one detainee”. Furthermore, OHCHR notes that alongside arbitrary detention of a high number of civilians, with one civilian dying as a result, this case could also involve the crime of hostage-taking: “OHCHR is concerned that if the deprivation of liberty of the sailors was undertaken or prolonged specifically for purposes of exchanging them for Ukrainian POWs or civilian detainees, this incident may amount to hostage taking under IHL”. The way that the war in Ukraine is presented in the West is as a noble, humanitarian endeavour, clearly separating ‘us’ – the ‘civilised West’ – from those ‘barbarians in the East’. That rosy, self-serving picture does not hold up against what was done in Izmail by Western-backed forces; the cruel prevention of 87 Russian civilian sailors from disembarking from their vessel for eight months, with a chronically ill sailor being denied medical care and subsequently dying, and the case possibly amounting to hostage-taking under international humanitarian law. This should outrage everyone who has any semblance of moral sensibility. The fact that there has been total silence over this in the American and British press is a further indictment of the jingoism that has overtaken a large part of the West, and its erosion of basic moral decency among the citizenry, including the journalistic class, who have an obligation to at least cover these things, not cover them up. The attitude that prevails is similar to that during the War on Terror; anything goes because the ends justify the means. If we have to abuse civilians, facilitate torture, sexual violence, and enforced disappearance, and perpetrate injustices to give Russia a bloody nose, so be it.
The difference is that at least during the War on Terror, the left was often at the forefront of opposing such abuses and jingoism. Now, there is virtually no leftist opposition – at least, in the mainstream of politics – to any of this. Even if The Squad in the US, or the Socialist Campaign Group in Britain, have decided that this war is justified, they could condemn, or at least acknowledge, these atrocities that Western military aid is facilitating. Instead, they have chosen to perpetuate comforting fairytales – at the expense of our ‘unworthy victims’.