Presentation by Ida Sawyer, Crisis and Conflict Director
Your excellency Minister Xhaçka, dear distinguished guests, and fellow briefers,
Thank you to the Permanent Missions of Albania and France for convening this important meeting.
Today Human Rights Watch has the microphone, but we acknowledge the Ukrainian and Russian human rights defenders who have been for many years working on the front lines documenting violations and pressing for credible justice. We stand in solidarity with them during this challenging time.
The violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by Russian forces in this conflict are grave and severe. Since 2014, we have documented a litany of apparent war crimes that runs too long to mention here.
Over the past two months, since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, my colleagues and I have documented the killing of civilians and damage to homes, schools, and hospitals in Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Mykolaiv, and elsewhere from apparently indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks.
In the town of Bucha and other areas that Russian forces held, we’ve found extensive evidence of summary executions, enforced disappearances, torture, sexual violence, and arbitrary detentions, all of which could constitute war crimes and potentially crimes against humanity.
In Mariupol, tens of thousands of civilians have been trapped, as their city was turned to rubble, with little to no food, water, medicine, heating, or means of communication, and no safe way to escape. Many have been forcibly transported to Russia. We urge Russia to let all civilians who wish to flee the city to areas controlled by Ukraine to be allowed to do so safely.
We ask authorities to pay special attention to those often disproportionately affected in conflicts: children, older people, and people with disabilities. The environmental and health impacts will also be intense and long term.
The laws of war apply to all parties to the conflict, and we welcome Ukraine’s public commitment to adhere to those norms.
One concern is Ukraine's treatment of prisoners of war, and we note credible reports of abuse that should be investigated. Another is Ukraine’s reported use of cluster munitions, which if accurate, should immediately stop and personnel responsible for using these weapons held to account.
In all of our research, what we hear again and again is that the victims of these violations want justice.
The pattern of abuse we are seeing in Ukraine is consistent with well-documented grave crimes by Russian forces in other places such as Syria. The lack of accountability for those violations has regrettably opened the door for what is occurring today.
Against that background, we welcome the unprecedented response by so many governments to engage with a range of accountability tools so that serious crimes get punished. We note the UN Human Rights Council’s swift action to establish a commission of inquiry, governments’ strong support of an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation, and the decision by judicial authorities in several countries to pursue their own criminal investigations under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
Many governments have offered Ukraine assistance to bolster its judicial capacity. Meanwhile, domestic and international civil society groups have been vigorously documenting violations as they occur.
Today we would like to stress some points to ensure that these efforts lead to positive outcomes for accountability, both for this conflict and for others. Our research has shown that fair and effective justice is achievable with the right combination of appropriate laws, adequate resources and expertise, institutional commitments, effective cooperation, and above all, political will.
Ukraine Accountability Recommendations
Fair and effective investigations and prosecutions at the national level will be essential to achieve broad-based accountability. However, cases involving grave crimes are complex to investigate, prosecute, and adjudicate, all the more so amid an armed conflict.
Increased capacity and resources will therefore be needed to effectively address the large scale of violations being committed. Ukrainian authorities can build on existing domestic experience through collaboration with those in the international community who offer evidentiary, technical, and operational support to facilitate the investigation and prosecution of international crimes. Doing so will benefit efforts to preserve evidence and safeguard crime scenes, and could help ensure a robust framework for victim support and witness protection.
We also join our Ukrainian civil society colleagues in calling on Ukraine to ratify the Rome Statute, which will allow Ukraine to exercise full rights of membership to the Assembly of States Parties, the ICC’s governing body.
In addition to ratification, we urge Ukraine to fully align its national legislation with the Rome Statute and international law. A bill adopted by Ukraine’s parliament in May 2021 that could help authorities prosecute serious crimes domestically has yet to be signed into law.
International Accountability Recommendations
To ensure accountability for serious crimes in Ukraine, a multitiered, cross-cutting approach will be needed which includes a range of actors at the international level: the ICC, national courts, and various documentation efforts.
We urge international actors involved in these efforts to focus on five key priorities:
First – and as many have underlined – it is imperative to ensure coordination among the different accountability actors, with an overarching strategy. This includes common standards for the collection, preservation, and archiving of evidence.
Second, impartial investigations and prosecutions are essential. At stake is keeping justice above politics, for this conflict and beyond.
Third, the international community should ensure that justice is not sidelined in any peace negotiations, and that compromise on justice is rejected. Experience shows that decisions to forego accountability can prove costly in the long term.
Fourth, authorities should work with civil society to inform judicial processes. Beyond documentation work, civil society can facilitate access to information and outreach to victims and affected communities.
Lastly, we hope that the international community will use this moment to strengthen the cause of justice worldwide. We welcome the commitment to accountability for crimes in Ukraine and would like to see this principled support replicated in other conflicts where civilians suffer, such as in Yemen, Ethiopia, and Palestine. To do otherwise would undermine the international justice system as a whole.
Thank you for this invitation.