Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24 and the ensuing war had a disastrous impact on civilians, civilian property and energy infrastructure, and overshadowed all other human rights concerns in the country. Russian forces committed a litany of violations of international humanitarian law, including indiscriminate and disproportionate bombing and shelling of civilian areas that hit homes and healthcare and educational facilities. In areas they occupied, Russian or Russian-affiliated forces committed apparent war crimes, including torture, summary executions, sexual violence, and enforced disappearances. Those who attempted to flee areas of fighting faced terrifying ordeals and numerous obstacles; in some cases, Russian forces forcibly transferred significant numbers of Ukrainians to Russia or Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine and subjected many to abusive security screenings.
As of early January 2023, the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) had verified at least 6,919 civilian deaths and more than 11,000 wounded since the start of the conflict and believed the actual figures were higher. As of this writing over 14 million civilians had been displaced by the war: according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there were 6.5 million internally displaced in Ukraine, 5 million had fled to European countries, and another 2.8 million went to Russia and Belarus.
In September, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed Donetska, Luhanska, Khersonska, and Zaporizka regions, which Russian forces partially occupied, as part of Russia. The claim had no legal value. Russian forces, in areas of these regions under their control, staged referenda on joining Russia and in some cases forced residents to vote at gunpoint.
Information about Ukrainian forces violating the laws of war by mistreatment, and apparent summary executions, of prisoners of war, which would be a war crime, also emerged.
Indiscriminate and Disproportionate Russian Attacks
Russian forces carried out numerous attacks that killed and wounded thousands of civilians. Some of these attacks were unlawful under international humanitarian law, including because they were indiscriminate or disproportionate in their effects on civilians.
In early March, after effectively encircling the northeastern city of Chernihiv, Russian forces killed at least 98 civilians and wounded at least 123 others in eight attacks on the city. In one of the deadliest, on March 3, Russian forces dropped several unguided aerial bombs on an apartment building complex, killing at least 47 civilians. On March 16, Russian forces attacked a bread line outside a supermarket that killed at least 17 and conducted two other attacks that damaged two hospitals. There were Ukrainian military targets in the vicinity of some of these attacks, but Human Rights Watch found at least four of the eight attacks to be unlawful. Attacks in the area diminished once Ukrainian forces re-took the region at the end of March.
During its three-month siege of Mariupol, Russian forces used explosive weapons with wide area effects, razed the urban landscape, and killed and injured untold numbers of civilians. In one attack, on March 16, Russian aircraft dropped bombs on the Donetsk Regional Theater in Mariupol, causing the roof and two main walls to collapse. At the time of the attack, hundreds of civilians were sheltering in the theater, which was also a center for the distribution of medicine, food, and water to civilians. An investigation by Amnesty International concluded that the strike killed at least a dozen people and likely many more, and seriously injured many others. Russian forces took full control of the city on May 20.
On June 27, Russian forces launched a missile which struck a busy shopping center in Kremenchuk, central Ukraine. The attack killed at least 18 civilians and wounded dozens of others. The impact crater from a Russian missile strike that hit minutes later and the blast damage to the adjacent shopping center, as examined by Human Rights Watch, were consistent with the detonation of warheads weighing nearly 1,000 kilograms with large, high-explosive payloads.
A regional official said that over a thousand civilians were killed in strikes in the Kharkivska region as of August. Human Rights Watch documented numerous unlawful attacks by Russian forces in Kharkiv, including the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in densely populated residential neighborhoods. On March 9, Russian forces dropped a large air-delivered munition on an apartment building in Izium city, killing 51 civilians, most of whom were sheltering in the basement. At the time of the attack, there was ongoing fighting for control of the Izium’s city center, but multiple witnesses told Human Rights Watch that there were no Ukrainian forces in the building at the time of the attack. Human Rights Watch documented eight unlawful attacks that took place in Kharkiv in May and June, just a fraction of all the attacks reported in the region during that period. The eight attacks killed 12 civilians, wounded 26 others, and damaged five hospital buildings.
Attacks Damaging Hospitals
Russian forces carried out multiple attacks, including with cluster munitions, that damaged healthcare facilities in several regions, without regard for the special protection afforded such facilities under the laws of war. Since February 24, 2022, the World Health Organization reported more than 700 attacks on healthcare facilities, personnel, and transport vehicles, killing and injuring more than 200 people. As of November 29, the Health Ministry reported that “144 objects of medical infrastructure” had been destroyed and 1013 more were damaged.
On March 17, while Chernihiv city was encircled by Russian forces, Human Rights Watch documented how at least one Uragan rocket dispersed submunitions over a medical complex containing the Chernihiv Regional Children’s Hospital. According to local officials, the submunitions killed 14 civilians and injured 24.
In Derhachi, a town outside of Kharkiv city, Russian forces launched at least three attacks hitting different buildings of the main hospital between March and May.
On June 26, an expended rocket motor and tail section of an Uragan cluster munition rocket hit the Kharkiv Region’s Clinical Trauma Hospital, piercing the roof and causing damage to the sixth and seventh floors. Hospital officials reported that the medical complex had been hit by attacks on at least four previous occasions.
Attacks On and Military Use of Schools
Many schools were damaged or destroyed by Russian attacks. According to a September 21 situation report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the Ukrainian Ministry of Education and Science reported that more than 300 education facilities had been destroyed since the war began. Both Russian and Ukrainian forces at times used schools for military purposes, leading to their coming under attack by the opposing force.
Russian Killings of Fleeing Civilians and Attack on a Humanitarian Convoy
Russian forces fired on civilian vehicles in multiple incidents, including targeted attacks on civilians trying to flee hostilities, without any apparent effort to verify whether the occupants were civilians. In the Kyivska and Chernihivska regions, Human Rights Watch documented three separate incidents in which Russian forces fired on civilian vehicles between late February and early March, killing six civilians and wounding three. In one of these cases, Russian soldiers pulled a man from a van and summarily executed him.
On March 6, Russian forces repeatedly bombarded an intersection just outside Irpin, six kilometers from Kyiv, where hundreds of civilians were trying to flee the Russian military’s advance. At least eight civilians, including two children were reportedly killed in the bombardment.
On September 20, a Russian forces' missile strike hit a convoy in Zaporizhzhia as it was moving from Ukraine-controlled to Russia-occupied territory to deliver humanitarian aid. The attack killed at least 26 civilians and wounded over 50.
Hundreds of Russian cluster munition attacks were documented, reported, or alleged in at least 10 of Ukraine’s 24 regions, killing an estimated 689 civilians between February and July 2022. Human Rights Watch documented Russian forces’ use of cluster munitions in Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, and Donetsk regions.
Human Rights Watch documented Russian forces’ use of cluster munitions in attacks on populated areas of Mykolaiv on March 7, 11, and 13 which killed civilians and damaged homes, businesses, and civilian vehicles. The attack on March 13 killed nine people who were reportedly waiting in line at a cash machine.
On April 8, a Tochka-U short-range ballistic missile equipped with a cluster munition warhead hit the Kramatorsk train station and dispersed 50 9N24 submunitions over the tracks, station, and parking lot. Evidence points to Russia being responsible for the attack which killed 61 civilians and injured over 100 more as they were awaiting evacuation trains or assisting with the evacuation itself, making it one of the single deadliest incidents for civilians since Russia’s full-scale invasion began.
Ukrainian forces also used cluster munitions on several occasions. The New York Times reported that Ukrainian forces used Uragan cluster munition rockets in an attack on Husarivka in Kharkiv region on March 6 or 7, when the village was under Russian control. From May to early September, Ukrainian forces repeatedly attacked the city of Izium and surrounding areas, while they were under Russian control, with cluster munitions. On May 9, two civilians were killed and four others were injured when several submunitions detonated around their building, which was in a residential area in the south of Izium. Russian forces were located fewer than 150 meters away.
Cluster munitions are banned by the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which has been ratified by 110 states. Neither Russia nor Ukraine is a party to the convention.
The use of antipersonnel landmines in Ukraine has been extensive since February 24. Human Rights Watch has documented the use of eight types.
In the city of Bucha, 30 kilometers north of Kyiv, following Russian forces’ month-long occupation, the Ukrainian government’s demining unit found a total of 20 victim-activated booby traps and antipersonnel mines, including two bodies with devices placed on them.
Ukrainian deminers also located and cleared numerous antipersonnel mines, including hand grenades with tripwires, in Kharkiv region, following Russian forces’ retreat early September.
Human Rights Watch spoke to over 100 witnesses about the presence of landmines and observed remnants in numerous neighborhoods in Izium and on the city’s outskirts following the retreat of Russian forces in early September. Healthcare workers present in Izium during this time said that they treated dozens of civilian casualties. One said that the total number of civilian casualties was nearly 50, including at least five children. They said most of the traumatic amputations of lower limbs they performed during that period were due to injuries consistent with personnel landmine blasts. The head of the Ukrainian demining operation in Izium told Human Rights Watch that, from September 15 to 30, they had deactivated or destroyed thousands of PFM-1 variant mines and that there were so many they stopped keeping track.
Ukraine signed the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty in 1999 and became a state party in 2006. Russia has not joined it.
Attacks on Energy Infrastructure
Starting in October, Russian forces repeatedly launched missile and drone strikes on energy and other infrastructure throughout Ukraine, leading to power cuts and leaving millions periodically without heat, electricity, water-generating capacity, and other vital services ahead of the cold winter months. The attacks killed at least 77 civilians and injured nearly 300. The attacks appeared designed primarily to instill terror among the population and make life untenable for them.
Impacts on People with Disabilities
UN bodies expressed concerns on the situation of people with disabilities caught up in the conflict, including children and adults with disabilities living in residential institutions. The Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities noted reports of people with disabilities being abandoned or trapped in their homes or institutions, with no access to support services. UN human rights experts also noted the disproportionate impact of the conflict on children with disabilities, including those evacuated from institutions in conflict zones to other areas of Ukraine or abroad.
In the early months of the invasion, Ukraine continued to arbitrarily hold migrants and asylum seekers in detention in several sites across the country, including near the front lines in Mykolaiv. Ukrainian authorities eventually released or relocated most migrants to safer areas.
Russian Forces’ Abuses During Occupation
Russian forces committed apparent war crimes and potential crimes against humanity in occupied areas of Ukraine, including ill treatment, torture, arbitrary detention, and the forcible disappearance of civilians and members of the Ukrainian armed forces. Some detained individuals were summarily executed, with their bodies showing signs of torture.
Russian forces tortured and unlawfully detained many civilians and held them for days and weeks in inhumane and degrading conditions in makeshift facilities such as pits, basements, boiler rooms, and factories. In March, in the northeastern town of Yahidne, Russian forces held over 350 villagers, including at least 70 children, for 28 days in a damp, cold, and dirty school basement. Ten older people died during that time.
When Russian forces detained civilians, they routinely refused to acknowledge the detentions or to provide information about the detainees’ whereabouts, constituting enforced disappearances in violation of international law. The HRMMU documented 457 cases of enforced disappearances between late February and July in areas controlled by Russian or Russian-affiliated forces.
Human Rights Watch documented seven cases in the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions in which Russian soldiers beat detainees, used electric shocks, or carried out mock executions to coerce them to provide information. In the Kharkiv region, Human Rights Watch documented the cases of 14 men and one woman in Izium who were arbitrarily detained and tortured during the 6-month period when Russian forces occupied the area. Survivors described being subjected to electric shock, waterboarding, severe beatings, threats at gunpoint, and being forced to hold stress positions for extended periods.
Human Rights Watch documented 42 cases occurring between March and July in which Russian forces forcibly disappeared civilians or otherwise held them arbitrarily, in some cases incommunicado, in the occupied areas of Khersonska and Zaporizka regions. Many were tortured, including through prolonged beatings and in some cases electric shocks; some were blindfolded and handcuffed for the duration of their detention. With the exception of one case, Russian forces did not tell families where their loved ones were held or provide other information on their fates.
In June, the HRMMU reported that Russian forces transferred “an unknown number” of civilians it had detained in Ukraine to the Russian Federation and other locations under their control, where they were “held in penal institutions, often together with prisoners of war.”
Human Rights Watch documented the detention of ten civilians, including one woman, by Russian forces in the Kyiv region between February 26 and late March who apparently forcibly transferred them to detention facilities in Russia’s Kursk and Bryansk regions. This constitutes a war crime. Families told Human Rights Watch that they learned about the men’s locations only from former prisoners and had still not received any confirmation of the detentions from Russian authorities.
Russian forces summarily executed civilians and others who had last been seen in the custody of Russian forces; their bodies often showed signs of abuse. The HRMMU documented 441 targeted killings of civilians, “through summary executions and attacks on individual civilians” in Kyivska, Chernihivska, and Sumska regions between February 24 and April 6, 2022.
On February 27, in the village of Staryi Bykiv in Chernihivska region, Russian forces rounded up six men from three different families, took them to the end of the village, and summarily executed them.
During the Russian occupation of Bucha from March 4 to 31, Russian forces appear to have committed numerous summary executions, among other abuses. After Russian forces withdrew, local officials reported finding 458 bodies scattered throughout the town, the vast majority civilians. Approximately 50 of the bodies had hands tied and showed signs of torture, strongly suggesting that they had been detained and then summarily executed.
In Izium, in Kharkivska region, Russian forces and others operating under their command executed at least three men they detained, dumping their bodies in the forest, only to be found four months later.
Conflict-Related Sexual Violence
Both the UN Commission of Inquiry, established in March by the UN Human Rights Council, and the HRMMU reported cases of conflict-related sexual and other gender-based violence. In December, the HRMMU reported that between February 24 and October 21, it had documented 86 cases of sexual violence, most by Russian forces, including rape, gang rape, forced nudity and forced public stripping in various regions of Ukraine and in one penitentiary facility in Russia.
Women, including older women, and girls constituted the majority of all reported victims.
Human Rights Watch documented two cases in which Russian forces raped Ukrainian women, one in which they raped a girl, and a fourth in which a doctor who had treated the survivor provided information about the assault. In one of the cases, which took place on March 13, a Russian soldier repeatedly raped a woman sheltering with her family at a school in Kharkiv region. The woman told Human Rights Watch that he also beat her and cut her face, neck, and hair.
Survivors of sexual violence face significant challenges in accessing critical services, including time-sensitive medical care. Active hostilities, occupation, displacement, and destruction or unavailability of medical services and supplies hindered survivors’ access to essential medical, psychosocial, legal, and socioeconomic support services. Stigma, shame, and fear of reprisals also deterred survivors from reporting sexual violence or seeking help.
Forcible Transfers and the Filtration Process
Russian officials told Ukrainian civilians fleeing hostilities in the Mariupol area that they could not go to Ukrainian-controlled areas but had to go to Russia or other areas of Ukraine occupied by Russia. Civilians who had their own cars or the means to hire one could evade this. However, for others fleeing who did not have such means, Russian and Russian-affiliated officials transported them to Russia or Russian-occupied areas in organized mass transfers, often against their will or in a context where they had no meaningful choice, which constitutes a war crime.
Russian and Russian-affiliated authorities also subjected thousands of Ukrainian citizens trying to flee hostilities to compulsory, punitive, and abusive security screening known as “filtration.” As part of the filtration process, Russian authorities collected vast amounts of information, including civilians’ biometric data. Those who “failed” the filtration process, apparently due to their suspected ties to the Ukrainian military or to nationalist groups, were presumably detained in Russian-controlled regions.
Abuses against Prisoners of War
Prisoners of war (POWs) on both sides have been ill-treated, tortured, and in some cases apparently summarily executed. In November 2022, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that it had identified “patterns of torture and ill-treatment of [Ukrainian] POWs held by the Russian Federation (including by affiliated armed groups),” including through beatings, electric shocks, mock executions, and “placement in a hotbox or a stress position.”
There is no indication, according to OHCHR, of Russian authorities holding any investigations into these abuses that resulted in prosecutions.
OHCHR documented episodes of torture and ill-treatment of Russian POWs held by Ukrainian forces, upon capture and during internment, including beatings upon entry to places of internment and forced kneeling for extended periods. OHCHR noted investigations by Ukrainian authorities into two extrajudicial executions of POWs, but that it had “not seen progress in these proceedings.”
On July 29, according to the HRMMU, several dozen Ukrainian POWs were killed and over 100 wounded at the detention facility in Olenivka, in Russian-controlled Donetska region. Many of the prisoners had surrendered after the fall of Mariupol to Russian forces in mid-May. The United Nations Secretary-General established a fact-finding mission to investigate, but to date, no independent investigators have been allowed access to the prison. According to media reports, beatings and torture of prisoners at the facility had been commonplace.
On March 27, Russian forces captured three members of Kherson’s Territorial Defense Forces and repeatedly tortured them. The body of one was found, while a second died two months after capture from injuries inflicted in detention. The third man was still suffering from injuries due to torture when interviewed by Human Rights Watch in July.
Both Russian and Ukrainian authorities have also broadcast images and details of captured prisoners of war, thereby exposing them to public curiosity in violation of the Geneva Conventions.
On April 2 and 4, Russia broadcast programs on state television showing Ukrainian POWs in Russian custody in Sevastopol. A March 26 report by the HRMMU noted the existence of “a large number of videos” showing Ukrainian POWs being insulted, intimidated, and interrogated immediately after capture.
Ukraine's State Security Service (SBU) and Interior Ministry also posted hundreds of photos and videos on its social media accounts and on a website apparently run by the Interior Ministry of Captured Russian soldiers, often with their passports and identification documents. Many of the Russian POWs appeared to be under duress; some of the soldiers were blindfolded, gagged, or masked. On March 27, videos posted online showed Ukrainian forces abusing captured Russian fighters, including shooting three of them in the leg. The incident apparently took place in a village near Kharkiv. A video posted on March 28 by a Ukrainian journalist shows three charred bodies at the same location, but the identity of the bodies and the circumstances surrounding the deaths remined unclear at this writing.
Ukraine has yet to ratify the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) founding treaty but has accepted the court’s jurisdiction over alleged crimes committed on its territory since November 2013.
On June 20, Ukraine’s parliament approved ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Domestic Violence and Violence against Women, known as the Istanbul Convention. For more than a decade, women’s rights groups had been advocating for this step to combat violence against women and girls.
On August 30, Ukraine’s parliament passed on first reading a media bill that threatens press freedom. It would expand the powers of the National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting, the state broadcasting regulator, allowing it to, among other things, block online media without a court order.
Key International Actors
As part of an unprecedented response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, multilateral organizations and foreign governments swiftly engaged a range of accountability mechanisms and tools, underscoring the importance of accountability for serious crimes.
On March 2, the ICC prosecutor opened an investigation into alleged serious crimes in Ukraine following a request by a group of ICC member countries to do so. Judicial officials in countries across Europe have also opened criminal investigations using their national laws to examine serious crimes committed in Ukraine.
On March 4, the UN Human Rights Council established an Independent International Commission of Inquiry to investigate human rights and humanitarian law violations associated with the war; the commission was tasked with collecting, analyzing, and consolidating evidence of violations, including identifying those responsible where possible with a view to ensuring accountability.
On October 18, the commission published its first report, based on investigations in four regions, finding that “an array of war crimes, violations of human rights and international humanitarian law have been committed in Ukraine.” The commission found that Russian forces were responsible for “the vast majority of the violations identified” and that “Ukrainian forces … committed international humanitarian law violations in some cases, including two incidents that qualify as war crimes.”
On March 25, the European Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation supported the establishment of a “joint investigation team” (JIT) to facilitate cooperation among a number of countries’ criminal investigations on Ukraine as well as the ICC. The countries participating in the JIT are Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia and Romania.
To support the Ukrainian authorities’ criminal investigations, many governments, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and those of the European Union, have offered Ukraine evidentiary, technical, and operational assistance to bolster its judicial capacity. Meanwhile, domestic and international civil society groups have been vigorously working to document violations as they occur.
At writing, it remained unclear how these accountability mechanisms would be coordinated, although multiple efforts were underway to ensure synergies among various initiatives.
The United Nations Security Council held public discussions on violations in Ukraine, including environmental and humanitarian concerns related to Russia's occupation of the nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhia. On April 27, the Security Council held an informal meeting and, on September 22, convened a ministerial-level meeting, both focused on accountability for serious crimes in Ukraine.
The Security Council, has, however, failed to take any substantive action due to Russia's veto power. The day after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Security Council considered a resolution ordering Russia to halt the invasion and withdraw its troops from Ukraine. According to the United Nations Charter, as a party to the conflict, Russia should have abstained from the vote. However, Russia cast the lone veto, killing the resolution. None of the other four veto powers criticized Russia for that apparent violation of the Charter. Shortly after, Security Council members referred the situation in Ukraine to the General Assembly, though the Security Council continues to periodically discuss the conflict.
The General Assembly, by contrast, passed four resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Russian violations, including one that suspended Russia’s membership in the Human Rights Council. In response to the suspension, Russia announced its withdrawal from the Human Rights Council. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres spoke out repeatedly on Russian violations and, while on a visit to Russia and Ukraine in April, urged Moscow to cooperate with the ICC.
Forty-five member states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) invoked the Moscow Mechanism on two occasions (March 13 and June 2), allowing the organization to deploy a mission of experts to Ukraine. In its July 14 report, the mission found a “clear pattern of serious violations of [international humanitarian law] attributable mostly to Russian armed forces,” and pointed to indiscriminate attacks against civilians, as well as signs of torture and ill-treatment of killed civilians, as evidence that Russia had violated international law.