Bachelet urges respect for international humanitarian law amid growing evidence of war crimes in Ukraine

GENEVA (22 April 2022) – The Russian invasion nearly two months ago has plunged Ukraine into a human rights and humanitarian crisis that has devastated the lives of civilians throughout the country and beyond, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said on Friday, as she called for all parties to respect international human rights law and international humanitarian law, in particular the rules governing the conduct of hostilities.

“Over these eight weeks, international humanitarian law has not merely been ignored but seemingly tossed aside,” Bachelet said.

Russian armed forces have indiscriminately shelled and bombed populated areas, killing civilians and wrecking hospitals, schools and other civilian infrastructure, actions that may amount to war crimes.

“What we saw in Government-controlled Kramatorsk on 8 April when cluster sub-munitions hit the railway station, killing 60 civilians and injuring 111 others, is emblematic of the failure to adhere to the principle of distinction, the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks and the principle of precaution enshrined in international humanitarian law,” Bachelet said.

The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) has also documented what appears to be the use of weapons with indiscriminate effects, causing civilian casualties and damage to civilian objects, by Ukrainian armed forces in the east of the country.

Since 24 February to midnight on 20 April, HRMMU has documented and verified 5,264 civilian casualties – 2,345 killed and 2,919 injured. Of these, 92.3 per cent (2,266 killed and 2,593 injured) were recorded in Government-controlled territory. Some 7.7 per cent of casualties (79 killed and 326 injured) were recorded in Donetsk and Luhansk regions controlled by Russian armed forces and affiliated armed groups.

“We know the actual numbers are going to be much higher as the horrors inflicted in areas of intense fighting, such as Mariupol, come to light,” the UN Human Rights Chief said.

“The scale of summary executions of civilians in areas previously occupied by Russian forces are also emerging. The preservation of evidence and decent treatment of mortal remains must be ensured, as well as psychological and other relief for victims and their relatives,” Bachelet added.

During a mission to Bucha on 9 April, UN human rights officers documented the unlawful killing, including by summary execution, of some 50 civilians.    

“Almost every resident in Bucha our colleagues spoke to told us about the death of a relative, a neighbour or even a stranger. We know much more needs to be done to uncover what happened there and we also know Bucha is not an isolated incident,” said the High Commissioner.

HRMMU has received more than 300 allegations of killings of civilians in towns in the regions of Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy, all under the control of Russian armed forces in late February and early March.

Wilful killing of protected persons, including summary executions, are gross violations of international human rights law and serious violations of international humanitarian law, and amount to war crimes.

HRMMU is also documenting the devastating consequences of the conflict on a range of other human rights, including the right to health. To date, it has recorded 114 attacks on medical establishments, although the actual figure is likely to be considerably higher. The disruption of medical care has also seen the general mortality rate among civilians increase in a number of besieged towns and cities.

“We estimate that at least 3,000 civilians have died because they couldn’t get medical care and because of the stress on their health amid the hostilities. This includes being forced by Russian armed forces to stay in basements or not being allowed to leave their homes for days or weeks,” said Bachelet.

Allegations of sexual violence against women, men, girls and boys by members of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine have increasingly surfaced.  HRMMU has received 75 allegations from across the country, although the majority are from the Kyiv region. HRMMU is looking into each allegation, although this remains challenging as survivors may not be willing or able to be interviewed.

Detention of civilians has become a widespread practice in areas controlled by the Russian armed forces and affiliated armed groups. Since 24 February, HRMMU has recorded 155 such cases, including of local officials, journalists, activists, human rights defenders, and others. Some were reportedly tortured or ill-treated, left without food or water, or held in overcrowded improvised facilities. Five victims of enforced disappearances were subsequently found dead.

HRMMU has also received information about alleged arbitrary and incommunicado detentions by Ukrainian forces or people aligned with them. In some cases, relatives do not have information about where their loved ones are, raising serious concerns regarding enforced disappearance, compliance with due process and the risk of torture and ill-treatment.

“Our work to date has detailed a horror story of violations perpetrated against civilians. First and foremost, this senseless war must stop. But as the fighting shows no sign of abating, it is vital that all parties to the conflict give clear instructions to their combatants to strictly respect  international humanitarian law and international human rights law,” Bachelet said.

“This means distinguishing between civilian and military objects. It means not targeting or deliberately killing civilians. It means not committing sexual violence. People, including prisoners of war, must not be tortured. Civilians, prisoners and others hors de combat must be treated humanely,” she stressed, noting the reports of torture, ill-treatment and summary executions committed by all belligerent parties. There are numerous videos put out by both sides available online apparently depicting intimidation, interrogation, torture and even killing of prisoners of war.

“Those in command of armed forces must make it clear to their fighters that anyone found to have been involved in such violations will be prosecuted and held accountable,” Bachelet said. “I call on the parties to the conflict to investigate all violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law allegedly committed by their nationals, armed forces and affiliated armed groups, in line with their obligations under international law.”