UN Confirms Atrocities on Both Sides of Ukraine War by Irfan Chowdhury

July 11, 2022

In Blog News

UN Confirms Atrocities on Both Sides of Ukraine War


On 29 June 2022, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a comprehensive report on human rights violations committed over the course of the Ukraine war, during the period from 24 February to 15 May 2022, titled: ‘The situation of human rights in Ukraine in the context of the armed attack by the Russian Federation’. The report documents egregious, systematic atrocities committed by both the Russian armed forces and Russian-affiliated armed groups, and by the Ukrainian armed forces. Russia is responsible for the bulk of the atrocities, but Ukraine has also committed serious and widespread violations, and in some areas, Ukraine actually has a worse record than Russia. This article will present some of the report’s most serious findings about Ukrainian violations, which are most relevant for those of us in the West whose governments are flooding Ukraine with weapons, and whose media are blindly cheering for Ukraine and NATO, with little regard for facts.

Cluster Munitions

Both Russia and Ukraine are carrying out attacks with cluster munitions in populated areas. With regards to attacks using Tochka-U missiles armed with cluster munitions, the UN documented 10 such attacks by Russia, and 25 such attacks by Ukraine, killing and injuring lots of civilians. Thus, as per the UN, Ukraine has used Tochka-U missiles armed with cluster munitions at a higher rate than Russia. The report states:

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“OHCHR is concerned that both the Russian Federation and Ukraine have been using Tochka-U missiles armed with cluster munitions in their conduct of hostilities. These 15-120 km range missiles lack precision and are able to carry warheads with 50 cluster sub-munitions and pose a significant threat to the lives of civilians. While OHCHR notes the Russian Federation’s claims that it had replaced Tochka-U missiles with the next generation Iskander missiles in 2019, OHCHR received credible information that Tochka-U systems were used by Russian armed forces in Ukraine after 24 February 2022. OHCHR was able to identify and corroborate at least 10 attacks by Russian armed forces and 25 attacks by Ukrainian armed forces with the use of Tochka-U missiles. On 10 April, a woman was killed as a result of an attack carried out with a Tochka-U missile on premises used to store military equipment and ammunitions in armed group-controlled Novoaidar (Luhansk region). In at least 20 cases, the missiles were carrying sub-munitions that hit populated areas. Ten such incidents have resulted in at least 279 civilian casualties (83 killed and 196 injured): four incidents in Government-controlled territory (65 killed and 148 injured), four in territory controlled by Russian affiliated armed groups (16 killed and 41 injured) and two in territory controlled by Russian armed forces (2 killed and 7 injured)”.

“On 14 March, Russian affiliated armed groups claimed to have intercepted a Tochka-U missile equipped with a cluster munitions warhead over the centre of Donetsk. As a result of the detonation of four sub-munitions in the vicinity of the missile’s crash site, 15 civilians were killed (3 women, 1 man, and 11 adults whose sex is still unknown) and 36 injured (20 women, 14 men, 1 boy, and 1 adult whose sex is still unknown). Ukrainian armed forces denied any involvement in the incident”.

Human Shields

Both Russia and Ukraine are using civilians as human shields. One case documented by the UN involved Ukrainian soldiers taking over a care home, with patients and staff inside, who the Ukrainian soldiers blocked from leaving. Russian-affiliated armed groups helped these patients and staff when they escaped. The report states:

“OHCHR does not have reliable numbers on these cases, but the case of a care house in the village of Stara Krasnianka (Luhansk region) has been emblematic in this regard. At the beginning of March 2022, when active hostilities drew nearer to the care house, its management repeatedly requested local authorities to evacuate the residents. This was reportedly impossible as Ukrainian armed forces had allegedly mined the surrounding area and blocked roads. On 7 March, soldiers from Ukrainian armed forces entered the care house, where older persons and residents with disabilities and staff were located, as it had strategic value due to its proximity to an important road. On 9 March, soldiers from Russian affiliated armed groups, who were approaching from the opposite direction, engaged in an exchange of fire with soldiers from Ukrainian armed forces, although it remains unclear which side opened fire first. During this first exchange of fire, no staff or patients were injured.

On 11 March, 71 patients with disabilities and 15 staff, along with soldiers from Ukrainian armed forces, remained in the care house with no access to water or electricity. That morning, soldiers from Russian affiliated armed groups attacked the care house with heavy weapons, with patients and staff still inside. A fire started and spread across the care house while fighting was ongoing. Some staff and patients fled the care house and ran into the forest, until they were met five kilometers away by Russian affiliated armed groups, who provided them with assistance. According to various accounts, at least 22 patients survived the attack, but the exact number of persons killed remains unknown”.

Treatment of the Dead

Both Russia and Ukraine are mistreating the dead. A Ukrainian soldier was apparently photographed holding the severed head of a man with a ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ flag stuffed in his mouth (evidence of multiple war crimes), and Ukrainian soldiers appear to have arranged the corpses of Russian soldiers in a ‘Z’ formation (a reference to the Russian military symbol), for which there is also photographic evidence. Russian soldiers left corpses of civilians unburied, and for some time prevented relatives of the deceased from burying their loved ones. The UN did not document the kind of photographic humiliation of corpses on the Russian side that it documented on the Ukrainian side. The report states:

“Intense hostilities have, in many instances, resulted in the periodic retreat of both Ukrainian and Russian armed forces from their combat positions, forcing them to leave behind their wounded and dead soldiers. This has created an environment conducive to the mistreatment of the dead, which is prohibited by IHL.

During their control of parts of the Kyiv region, Russian armed forces sometimes failed to bury civilians that they had allegedly killed, leaving the bodies in basements, wells and on the streets. For a period of time, they also often forbade relatives of the deceased from burying their loved ones. The parties have an obligation to prevent the dead from being despoiled.

OHCHR is following up on incidents which, if verified, would raise serious concern of violations of IHL. In one case, what appears to be a Ukrainian soldier was photographed holding the severed head of a man with a self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ flag stuffed in his mouth. This case raises concerns of extrajudicial execution and outrages upon personal dignity, both of which are tantamount to war crimes. In another case, bodies of deceased Russian soldiers were apparently photographed in a line to form the letter “Z”’.

Arbitrary Detention and Torture of Civilians

Both Russia and Ukraine are using arbitrary detention and torture against civilians. In the case of Ukraine, victims include those suspected of supporting the Russian invasion and “spreading fake information”. In some cases, what Ukraine is doing may amount to enforced disappearance. The report states:

“OHCHR has also followed allegations of arbitrary detention in territory, controlled by the Government of Ukraine. The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and National Police have reportedly arrested more than one thousand individuals on suspicion of allegedly providing support to Russian armed forces and affiliated armed groups. Detainees were alleged to be members of sabotage groups, artillery spotters and informants, but also bloggers, journalists and administrators of social media or messaging channels, who were accused of spreading fake information or expressing support for the Russian armed attack.

OHCHR is concerned that many arrests may not have been carried out in line with Ukraine’s international human rights obligations, even taking into account Ukraine’s derogation from certain obligations under the ICCPR and other instruments. OHCHR documented 12 arrests (ten men and two women) carried out in a manner that raises concerns in relation to procedural and judicial guarantees of the right to liberty. OHCHR also documented 12 more cases (11 men and one woman) that may amount to enforced disappearance. In ten such cases, the victims have been released or their relatives received confirmation of their detention. In three cases, OHCHR documented the use of torture and ill-treatment.

OHCHR is particularly concerned about the possible enforced disappearance of a 20-year-old student who was reportedly arrested by the SBU. The SBU handcuffed him and placed a bag on his head before taking him from his hostel room in March 2022. They brought him by car to a hotel room in Zaporizhzhia where they kept him for four days. During that time, they threatened to shoot him in the leg, to send him to a zone of active hostilities and to kill him, in order to compel him to call his relatives to come to Government-controlled territory, so that the SBU could arrest them and prosecute them for state treason. His detention was not recorded and his relatives were not informed about his detention and fate. After his relatives came to Government-controlled territory and were arrested, the student was brought back to Dnipro in the same manner and released after a formal interrogation by the SBU”.

Extrajudicial Punishments

The UN documented 89 cases of extrajudicial punishment of suspected criminals in Ukraine-controlled territory, and only 3 cases in Russia-controlled territory. Thus, Ukraine has a worse record than Russia in this regard. Ukrainian civilians (sometimes with police/military help) tied victims to trees, filmed them, stripped them naked, beat them and posted the videos online. The UN confirms that some of this treatment could amount to sexual violence and torture, which are war crimes. The report states:

“OHCHR documented the widespread use of extrajudicial punishment of individuals believed to be so-called marauders, thieves, bootleggers, fake volunteers (fraudsters), drug dealers and curfew violators. During the reporting period, OHCHR documented 89 cases (80 men and 9 women) in territory controlled by the Government of Ukraine and three cases in territory controlled by Russian armed forces. In most cases civilians apprehended the victims believed to be committing crimes, tied them to trees or electricity poles with adhesive tape or plastic wrap, stained their faces or bodies with the words “marauders” or “thieves” or put stickers with these words on them, filmed them and published the videos online. In 19 cases, victims were partially or fully stripped of their clothes, which may amount to sexual violence and torture, especially if they were left without clothes in cold temperature, thereby causing them even more suffering. In 11 cases, victims were beaten by the perpetrators. OHCHR notes that public officials in different regions called for killing marauders at the crime scene or punishing them, which promoted such violence. OHCHR is particularly concerned that officers of the National Police or members of the Territorial Defence were involved in nine cases of extrajudicial punishment, and even beat tied victims (two cases). The practice decreased considerably in late April-May, with only three cases documented between 1 and 15 May 2022”.

Conflict-Related Sexual Violence

The UN verified 23 incidents of conflict-related sexual violence [CRSV]. Of these, 11 were carried out by Russian soldiers, 5 were carried out by Ukrainian soldiers, and 7 were carried out by unidentified actors and civilians (5 in Ukraine-controlled territory and 2 in Russia-controlled territory). The report states:

“Out of 108 allegations, OHCHR verified 23 cases, including cases of rape, gang rape, torture, forced public stripping, threats of sexual violence and other forms of sexual violence. 9 cases of CRSV were against women, 13 against men, and 1 against a girl (threat of sexual violence). OHCHR has not yet verified any allegations of sexual violence against boys.

Eleven acts of CRSV were committed by Russian armed forces and law enforcement, including rape and gang rape. For example, in the evening of 9 March, two Russian soldiers came to a house in Kyiv region where a woman lived together with her husband and a child. They shot her husband in the yard, and when she asked about him, one of Russian soldiers said: “You don’t have a husband anymore. I shot him with this gun. He was a fascist.” Then another soldier put a pistol to her head and told her to undress. They gang raped her while holding a pistol to her head. They came to her house three times. Each time they gang raped her again.

Five acts of CRSV were committed by Ukrainian armed forces, including territorial defence, or other law enforcement bodies, which consisted of forced public stripping and threats of sexual violence. Seven cases committed by unidentified actors and civilians (five in Government-controlled territory and two in territory controlled by Russian armed forces) were related to forced public stripping of alleged male and female looters, which may amount to CRSV”.

Summary Executions and Torture of POWs

Both Russia and Ukraine are summarily executing and torturing prisoners. In one case, Ukrainian soldiers shot the legs of 3 Russian POWs and tortured wounded Russian soldiers in Kharkiv; in another case, a bleeding and choking Russian soldier lying on a road was shot dead by Ukrainian soldiers in Kyiv. The report states:

“OHCHR is particularly concerned about two documented cases of summary execution and torture of Russian prisoners of war and persons hors de combat reportedly perpetrated by members of Ukrainian armed forces. In the first case, members of Ukrainian armed forces shot the legs of three captured Russian soldiers and tortured Russian soldiers who were wounded in the Kharkiv region. In the second case, members of Ukrainian armed forces reportedly shot dead a bleeding and choking Russian soldier lying on a road in Kyiv region. Through confidential interviews, OHCHR also received information about incidents where Ukrainian servicemen killed persons who were wounded and hors de combat, as well as prisoners of war. If deliberate and confirmed, such incidents would constitute a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions and war crimes. OHCHR welcomes statements of Ukrainian officials condemning such violations and notes that the General Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation into both incidents described above. OHCHR also documented three incidents where Ukrainian servicemen and one incident where Russia serviceman made public threats of giving no quarter to Russian prisoners of war, which would constitute a war crime”.

Travel Ban for Men

The UN confirms that Ukraine is violating the human rights of the male population by banning men aged 18-60 from leaving the country for the duration of martial law, as no “clear justification” has been given for such a sweeping restriction on men. The extensions of the travel ban also “disproportionately affect men”. The report states:

“On 24 February, the President of Ukraine issued Decree No. 69/2022 “On General Mobilisation” (Decree No. 69/2022). The decree introduced the general mobilisation of persons eligible for military service and of reservists. The mobilisation concerns men, as well as women.67 On the same day, the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine announced that men aged 18-60 are prohibited from leaving the country for the duration of the martial law. OHCHR notes that neither the martial law, nor the travel ban of the State Border Guard, provide a clear justification for its application to the majority of the male population of the country. Moreover, OHCHR received information indicating that even men who were not covered by the general mobilisation decree were prevented from leaving the country.

The travel ban imposed by the State Border Guard was initially applicable only to men, and therefore resulted in differential treatment. However, on 29 March and 1 April, the Cabinet of Ministers extended the travel ban to all persons who are subject to mobilisation, which, as mentioned, also includes certain categories of women who can be called up for military duty on the basis of the jobs they occupy or professions they have. The practical application of the ban after the amendment continues to disproportionately affect men, since broader categories of men are subject to mobilisation than women”.

No Accountability for Atrocities

The UN expressed concern that Ukraine is apparently acting to shield members of its armed forces from accountability for atrocities. The report states:

“OHCHR is concerned that the President of Ukraine has not yet signed the law “On amendments to certain legislative acts of Ukraine concerning the implementation of provisions of international criminal law and humanitarian law” since he received it on 7 June 2021. The law harmonises domestic criminal liability for international crimes with international standards.

At the same time, OHCHR notes that, on 15 April, the Cabinet of Ministers registered draft law no. 7290 “On Amendments to the Criminal Code of Ukraine and the Criminal Procedure Code of Ukraine” in the Parliament. The reported objective of the draft law is to bring the provisions of the Criminal Code of Ukraine in line with international law in order to facilitate criminal prosecution for international crimes. OHCHR is concerned that this draft law is not in line with international standards and international best practices.

OHCHR is concerned that the adoption of this draft law could represent a step back and make it more difficult for authorities to ensure the effective, comprehensive prosecution of international crimes perpetrated in the context of the armed conflict. In particular, OHCHR is concerned about the provision regulating command responsibility, which excludes the responsibility of military commanders for negligence; that the draft law does not include a provision on universal jurisdiction for international crimes, which precludes the investigation of crimes committed outside Ukraine by foreigners not residing in Ukraine; and the definition of the crime of aggression, which is inconsistent with the approach in article 8bis of the Statute of the International Criminal Court because it does not include the responsibility of “a person in a position to effectively exercise control over or to direct the political or military action of a State of an act of aggression”. OHCHR believes that it is of the utmost importance that judicial authorities are provided with the legal tools to effectively prosecute those responsible for international crimes, including senior leaders and others who bear the greatest responsibility for the commission of such crimes”.

The UN also expressed concern that Ukraine’s cooperation with the International Criminal Court (ICC) only enables investigation and prosecution of atrocities committed by the Russian armed forces and Russian-affiliated armed groups; Ukraine has not allowed the ICC the scope to hold the Ukrainian armed forces accountable in the same way. The report states:

“On 3 May, the law on cooperation with the International Criminal Court (ICC) 73 was adopted by the Parliament of Ukraine. The law establishes a cooperation framework between the ICC and Ukrainian law enforcement authorities and courts.

OHCHR notes that the explanatory note restricts the scope of application of the law to the investigation and prosecution of only those individuals who are fighting for Russian armed forces or affiliated armed groups. Therefore, the ICC cooperation with Ukrainian judicial authorities in cases of alleged crimes committed by individuals fighting on the side of Ukraine remains outside the scope of the law and unregulated. This would have potentially serious impact on the right to effective remedy for all victims of international crimes, regardless of perpetrator. The ICC, which, on 2 March opened an investigation into the situation in Ukraine, has a key role in ensuring accountability for international crimes, and must be permitted the ability to examine such crimes comprehensively, even-handedly and impartially”.

By Irfan Chowdhury