Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk (R) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel brief the media before talks at the Chancellery in Berlin, May 28, 2014.

(Berlin) – Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany should press Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk to ensure that Ukrainian forces take all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians. Merkel and Yatseniuk are scheduled to meet in Berlin on January 8, 2015.

Merkel should emphasize the need for Ukraine’s Defense Ministry to issue clear and specific orders to troops fighting a Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine not to use certain explosive weapons in areas populated by civilians. Merkel should also press the Ukraine authorities to conduct further investigations into allegations that Ukrainian forces were responsible for attacks in the east that failed to distinguish between civilian and military objects, causing civilian casualties.

“Ukraine is in the throes of multiple crises and needs Germany’s assistance,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “As one of Ukraine’s most important allies, Germany has a special responsibility to make sure that the country’s leadership is actively enforcing the obligation to respect the laws of war and protect civilians.”

The United Nations estimated combined civilian and military casualties on all sides in the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine at 4,364 killed and 10,064 wounded as of November 30, 2014.

Human Rights Watch has documented government and rebel forces’ use of cluster munitions and Grad rockets in areas populated by civilians. The use of such weapons in populated areas is indiscriminate since the weapons affect a wide area and cannot distinguish between military targets and civilian objects.

In meetings with Human Rights Watch in December, Ukrainian officials said that their initial investigations concluded that Ukrainian forces were not responsible for the indiscriminate attacks that Human Rights Watch documented. Human Rights Watch said the investigations were incomplete, however. The Ukrainian investigation into the attacks using unguided Grad rockets was based solely on records kept by the agency responsible for counter-insurgency operations in eastern Ukraine and did not examine any forensic evidence on the ground, including impact sites in areas government forces control. Ukraine’s cluster munitions investigation apparently did not consider the specific weapon used in the attacks that Human Rights Watch documented.

“Ukrainian authorities have done the right thing by starting an investigation, but that will mean nothing if they do not investigate thoroughly,” Denber said. “We urge Merkel to encourage Yatseniuk to ensure that the job gets done.”

During the December meetings, defense officials told Human Rights Watch that the ministry had circulated instructions to all its commanders to inform troops about criminal responsibility under Ukrainian law for violating the laws of war and that international humanitarian law should be strictly respected.

Grad rockets should not be used in populated areas, even in response to attacks launched by rebels from civilian areas. In line with the global treaty addressing their prohibition, cluster munitions should never be used under any circumstances. Merkel should also encourage Ukraine’s leadership to join the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions.

“The Defense Ministry’s instructions are a step in the right direction, but we are counting on Merkel to firmly underscore the importance of specific instructions not to use certain weapons in populated areas,” Denber said.