(Berlin) – Ukrainian authorities should stop posting on social media and messaging apps videos of captured Russian soldiers that expose them to public curiosity, in particular those that show them being humiliated or intimidated, Human Rights Watch said today. Such treatment of prisoners of war, or POWs, violates protections under the Geneva Conventions intended to ensure dignified treatment of captured combatants on all sides.
The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), the main security arm of the Ukrainian government, has a Telegram account with about 868,000 subscribers where it has posted videos of captured Russian soldiers who appear under duress or are revealing their names, identification numbers, and other personal information, including their parents’ names and home addresses. It shares these videos on its Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram pages with roughly 978,000 combined followers and subscribers. A Telegram channel apparently run by the Internal Affairs Ministry with over 847,000 subscribers does the same and has an affiliated website and YouTube channel.
“The obligation to protect POWs from being objects of public curiosity, as well as protecting them from intimidation or humiliation, is part of the broader requirement to ensure their humane treatment and protect their families from harm,” said Aisling Reidy, Senior Legal Advisor at Human Rights Watch. “The Ukrainian authorities should stop posting these videos online.”
Social media platforms should also clarify whether and how videos of POWs that are incompatible with the Geneva Conventions fall under their existing policies and, if necessary, develop new policies to identify and suppress the spread of such content, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch wrote to the Security Service and Interior Ministry on March 10, 2022 to express concern about the state-run social media channels and website that were posting the images and videos and asked what steps the authorities will take to ensure that POWs are treated in compliance with the Geneva Conventions. As of March 16, Human Rights Watch was still awaiting a reply.
The various Security Service accounts have posted dozens of videos of captured Russian soldiers, some of which show them being interrogated while bound. Most clearly show the prisoner’s face, or the prisoners state their name or other personal information, such as their date of birth and parents’ names.
One video with 2.2 million views on the SBU’s Telegram channel shows a captured Russian soldier on the phone with his mother, and then another POW who under interrogation gives his name, birth date, and details on his military unit. A video on the security service Facebook page with over 5.4 million views shows a POW with a battered face and bandaged leg saying that he went through Belarus to Chernobyl, 90 kilometers north of Kyiv.
The Telegram channel, YouTube channel, and website apparently run by the Interior Ministry, all created on February 26, include a database with the names of Russian soldiers who were captured or killed in the war. An adviser to the Interior Ministry, Victor Andrusiv, said he is the manager of the website and affiliated channels. He said the purpose is to help the relatives identify captured and killed Russian soldiers.
On these platforms, the ministry has posted hundreds of photos and videos of captured Russian soldiers, often with their passports and identification documents. Some of the soldiers are blindfolded, gagged, or masked. In some cases, the POWs are recorded while calling their family back home. In one video posted to Telegram on March 6 with 785,000 views, two POWs identified with their names and military unit are interrogated at gunpoint while blindfolded and on their knees.
The platforms also show graphic images of dead Russian soldiers. The authenticity of all these photographs and videos cannot be verified.
In a video posted to the ministry-run YouTube channel, Andrusiv commented on Ukraine’s respect for the laws of war. “We are committed to fulfilling the Geneva Conventions and have instructed all units to treat all prisoners with respect,” he said. “The general commander and the minister of internal affairs have adopted instructions based on the Geneva Conventions for all soldiers and policemen. We will monitor adherence to these instructions on a permanent basis.”
The third Geneva Convention and Additional Protocol I address the protection of POWs. They make clear that POWs must be treated humanely in all circumstances and protected against any act of violence, as well as against intimidation, insults, and public curiosity. This includes disclosure of photographs or videos, recordings of interrogations, private conversations or personal correspondence, and any other private data.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has made clear that any material that allows viewers or readers to identify individual prisoners should not be transmitted, published, or broadcast. There are exemptions to the prohibition, but they are exceptional and allowed only if a compelling public interest exists, or if exposing the materials is in the prisoner’s vital interest, and then only insofar as that respects the POW’s dignity.
The Ukrainian government should ensure that the ICRC has access to all prisoners of war and should work with the ICRC to ensure that all personal information and data on POWs is handled in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.
All authorities in charge of POWs should also ensure that the official personnel are not taking photos or videos of prisoners other than for official purposes, and that official images or other personal information of prisoners are stored securely. Access to this material should only be allowed for personnel directly involved in the relevant duties. The use of these materials for any other purposes is strictly prohibited.
The authorities should make all feasible efforts to identify and hold to account anyone who has posted images and videos of POWs on social media sites, particularly if they were also involved in taking or creating the images for other than official purposes, or misused images that were taken for official purposes.
It is also important for the media to refrain from broadcasting or republishing material of POWs that violates the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said. Social media platforms should take steps to identify and suppress access to material that violates POWs’ right to humane treatment, including protection from public curiosity.
Human Rights Watch has also documented extensive laws-of-war violations and apparent war crimes by Russian forces, including indiscriminate attacks on civilians with cluster munitions and other weapons and preventing civilians from fleeing areas of fighting.
“The violations by Russian forces are pervasive and widespread, causing intense civilian harm,” Reidy said. “At the same time, Ukraine has clear obligations that it must uphold, including lawful treatment of POWs.”