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Ukraine: Human Cost of Brutal Russian Invasion

Hugh Williamson charts human-rights violations in Ukraine — and calls for perpetrators to be held to account

Published in: Church Times
An older woman is evacuated from a hospice in Chasiv Yar city, Donetsk district, Ukraine, April 18, 2022. © 2022 AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine starting on February 24, 2022, has left a terrible path of destruction in its wake. This has brought unimaginable personal suffering, as Russia seeks to erase Ukraine’s sovereignty and to crush Ukrainians’ resilience.

Russia has committed countless war crimes including extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual violence, and indiscriminate bombings of civilians, schools, hospitals, and residential areas. It has also repeatedly attacked energy infrastructure making civilian lives precarious and insecure.   

The impact reaches beyond Ukraine’s borders. More than 14 million Ukrainians have been forced to flee their homes, over half of them leaving the country, with 5 million coming to Europe.

The war has led to unprecedented repression in Russia, with an all-out drive to eradicate opposition to the war, independent journalism, and political dissent.

The international response to the war has also exposed double standards in how governments respond to such crises.

As a human rights organization, we focus on documenting violations of the ‘laws of war’ by parties to the conflict. These are the rules in international law that among other things provide protections to civilians from the hazards of armed conflict. While Russia has committed the vast majority of war crimes, there is evidence suggesting that Ukraine has also committed some.

We aim to show the scale of abuses against civilians, to put pressure on the warring parties to live up to their legal obligations to protect them during conflicts. We seek accountability for those who have committed war crimes and justice for the victims and their families. There should be no impunity for these grave crimes.

More than 7,100 civilians have been killed since the start of the war and over 11,600 wounded, according to figures verified by the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. It believes the actual numbers are much higher.

In recent months, Russian drone and missile attacks disrupted power and water supplies to an estimated 10,700,000 homes, affecting roughly half of the country’s population.

Such numbers are important but tell only part of the story and cannot give full accounts of the suffering and survival. Names, for instance of places less known outside the country a year ago, help convey this deeper meaning.

Bucha is one, now synonymous with some of the worst abuses. Russian troops overran this town 30 kilometers northwest of Kyiv in the early days of the conflict. When the troops left on March 31, it became clear they had committed numerous summary executions. Local Ukrainian officials reported finding 458 bodies scattered throughout the town.

In one case Russian forces summarily executed a man and threatened to execute four others on a public square, where 40 other people had also been forced to gather. A teacher who was brought to the square told us:

“At one point they brought in one young man, then four more. The soldiers ordered them (to) take off their boots and jackets. They made them kneel on the side of the road. Russian soldiers pulled their T-shirts from behind and over their heads. They shot one in the back of the head. He fell. Women screamed. The other four men were just kneeling there.”

Mariupol is another name. This coastal city was devastated early in the conflict as Russian forces laid siege. Attacks damaged homes, schools, hospitals, shelters, and other civilian infrastructure. Tens of thousands of people were trapped in the city with little to no access to medicine, food, water, electricity, or communications and no safe way to escape. Thousands are believed to have died in the bombardment or while sheltering in basements.

Russian soldiers told many civilians fleeing the city they had to go to Russia or territory it controlled in Ukraine. Such organized mass transfers constitute a war crime or potential crime against humanity.

The bombing by Russian aircraft of a drama theater in Mariupol was especially horrific. Hundreds of civilians, including women and children, had been sheltering inside. The attackers ignored the sign that read ‘DETI’ (children) painted on the ground outside that was so big it could be seen in satellite imagery.

The huge destruction caused by such indiscriminate bombing and shelling was not limited to Mariupol. Many towns and cities have been attacked. In addition Russia has repeatedly used cluster munitions and antipersonnel landmines, weapons that are so inherently indiscriminate that there are international treaties banning them. Russia has ratified neither. An attack on April 8 on the railway station in Kramatorsk using a ballistic missile with a cluster munition warhead killed 61 people, one of the single most lethal atrocities of the war.

Over 2,700 schools and other education institutions have been damaged, more than 300 beyond repair. There have been 700 attacks on health facilities, their staff and vehicles. And numerous attacks on energy supplies, potentially designed to instill terror among the population, also a violation of the laws of war.

One caregiver in Kyiv told us how the lengthy electricity blackouts affected her 75-year-old mother who has lung cancer and needs power for her oxygen equipment. “If there is no electricity for over two hours we are trapped and all I can do is watch my mother struggling to breathe.”

Rape and other types of conflict-related sexual violence have been reported to the UN. Between February 24 and mid-October its monitors recorded 86 cases, most by Russian forces, including gang rape. In one case we documented, a Russian soldier repeatedly raped a woman sheltering with her family in a school in the Kharkivska region. Survivors of sexual violence face significant difficulty in getting access to critical services such as sensitive medical care. Stigma and shame deter some survivors from reporting such violence.

At home, Russia has turned the screw against anyone objecting to the war, imposing lengthy prison terms for publicly questioning the Kremlin’s narrative about the conflict or even calling the conflict a ‘war.’ Over 15,000 protesters were detained in Moscow and elsewhere in the first month of the war alone. All remaining elements of independent media have been closed down, with many journalists, along with activists, moving abroad.

We gathered evidence that Ukraine has also committed violations, but note that, unlike Russia, the government has been ready to examine our reports. Last month we urged Kyiv to investigate its military’s apparent use of banned antipersonnel landmines in and around the eastern city of Izium, when Russian forces occupied the area. The mines, scattered in residential areas by long-distance rockets fired apparently by Ukraine, caused many severe injuries.

A 41-year-old woman told us that early in the morning of August 7 she went outside, along the path to her outside toilet. “I didn’t have a flashlight on because it was past curfew. Suddenly there was an explosion and I was without a leg.”

Ukraine’s foreign ministry said authorities would study the findings of our report.

The commitments of political will in Europe and elsewhere to support Ukraine have been significant, even extraordinary. But they also underline what could be possible with sufficient political will in other, less high profile crises, to defend human rights, protect refugees and bring accountability for war crimes.

The reception that people from Ukraine, mainly women and children, have received from ordinary people in Britain and elsewhere in Europe has been uplifting. The decision by the European Union to activate the Temporary Protection Directive, enabling Ukrainians to remain in EU member states without visas, was commendable.

Governments in Europe and elsewhere need to take the next step, ending the double standards towards refugees. Refugees from Ukraine are welcomed at Poland’s border with Ukraine, yet Afghans, Syrians, and others are beaten and turned away at Poland’s border with Belarus. EU states and the UK have opened their doors to those fleeing Ukraine while actively seeking to prevent those fleeing other conflicts from reaching Europe.

Many countries, including the UK, have rallied to reinforce justice efforts towards accountability for war crimes in Ukraine. They have supported domestic investigations and prosecutions in Ukraine, the referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, and the creation of a UN-mandated commission of inquiry. Judicial officials in several countries have opened investigations under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows domestic authorities to pursue prosecutions no matter where the crimes are committed, and regardless of the nationality of the suspects or victims.

These are important, timely initiatives. They also show however that victims’ access to justice often depends on political calculations. Governments are ready to support Ukraine, but less willing to offer backing for international justice when the cause is less politically popular. This double standard in victims’ access to justice should be urgently addressed.

It is not clear how long the war in Ukraine will last. Accountability processes can take years, even decades. Given the scale of the war crimes in the first year of the conflict alone, it is crucial to build on  the steps taken over the last 12 months in the years to come.

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