UN Commission’s report as an important step toward bringing Putin’s criminals to justice

UN Commission’s report as an important step toward bringing Putin’s criminals to justice

The warrant for Vladimir Putin’s arrest, issued by the International Criminal Court, overshadowed the report of the UN Independent International Commission on Inquiry in the media field.

It was published on March 16 and draws attention because it for the first time ever records that Russia’s crimes in Ukraine are systematic and widespread.

It is symbolic that this happened on the day marking the anniversary of Russia’s deadly bombing of the Mariupol Drama Theater, where civilians were sheltering.

Russian propaganda hastened to negate the importance of the report, with the manipulative claim that the Commission had allegedly failed to establish the genocide of the Ukrainians. Although, as lawyers clarify, there is no clear conclusion in the report that there are no signs of such a crime in Ukraine.

And, of course, the propaganda was silent that, as stated in the press release of the UN Human Rights Council, the evidence of the commission indicates that the Russian authorities committed deliberate killings of civilians or persons deprived of combat capability in the territories under its control, which are war crimes and violations of the right to life.

The Commission also noted that it was shocked by the extent of the destruction it had seen during its visits. It concludes that the Russian armed forces carried out attacks with the use of explosive weapons in localities, clearly inflicting harm and sufferings on the civilian population, and without taking the necessary precautions. These attacks were indiscriminate and disproportionate, in violation of international humanitarian law. Such use of explosive weapons in localities was one of the main causes of civilian casualties.

Serial attacks by the Russian armed forces on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure from October 10, 2022, could amount to crimes against humanity, according to the Commission, which stated that the matter required further investigation. The disruption of energy infrastructure has left entire regions and millions of people without electricity or heating for some time, including in freezing temperatures.

The Commission established the systematic nature of the widespread illegal deprivation of liberty in the territories controlled by the Russian armed forces, aimed at numerous categories of people — men, women, and children. Imprisonment and detention in special institutions throughout Ukraine and in Russia were accompanied by the consistent use of torture by the Russian authorities against certain categories of persons. A former prisoner was beaten as “punishment for speaking Ukrainian” and for “not remembering the words of the Russian anthem.” In the Commission’s view, this systematic practice of torture may amount to crimes against humanity and requires further investigation.

The commission found numerous cases of rape, sexual, and gender-based violence committed by the Russian authorities during searches of houses in the settlements under their control, as well as during illegal detention. Sexual violence amounting to torture and threats of such violence against women and men were essential aspects of the torture used by the Russian authorities.

Considering the issue of the transfer of children from Ukraine to Russia, the Commission noted with concern the violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. Situations involving the transfer and deportation of children, which it studied, constitute war crimes. Witnesses told the Commission that many of the displaced younger children were unable to contact their families and could lose contact with them indefinitely. The delay in the repatriation of civilians may also constitute a war crime.

The Commission also documented a small number of violations committed by the Ukrainian armed forces, including alleged indiscriminate attacks and two cases qualifying as war crimes when Russian prisoners of war were shot, wounded, and tortured.

In addition to sharing their deep losses and injuries with the Commission, the survivors insisted on the importance of identifying those responsible and bringing them to justice. A man whose father was executed by the Russian armed forces in the Izium district told the Commission: “They executed innocent people; now those who are guilty, if they are still alive, must be punished to the fullest extent of the law.”

The Commission recommends that all violations and crimes be investigated and that those responsible be held accountable, both nationally and internationally. It calls for a comprehensive approach to prosecution that includes both criminal accountability and the right of victims to truth, reparation, and non-repetition.

In the process of preparing this report, the Commission visited 56 settlements and interviewed 348 women and 247 men. The Commission’s investigators inspected the places of destruction, burials, places of detention and torture, as well as the remains of weapons, and got acquainted with a large number of documents and reports.

The Center for Strategic Communication and Information Security asked Margarita Sokorenko, Commissioner for the European Court of Human Rights, to comment on what such a report of the UN Commission means for Ukraine, in particular, in the context of future court cases. 

The Center for Strategic Communication and Information Security asked Margarita Sokorenko, Commissioner for the European Court of Human Rights, to comment on what such a report of the UN Commission means for Ukraine, in particular, in the context of future court cases. 

What do you believe is the most important thing for Ukraine in the conclusions of the commission? What did you pay attention to?

Personally, I am interested in this report of the Commission from the perspective of the practicality of its use in proceedings against Russia in international courts, primarily in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), where Ukraine has been conducting a legal battle since 2014, proving the existence of Russia’s practice of human rights violations in the occupied territories of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol, as well as the eastern regions.

And since 2022, the ECHR is also considering Ukraine’s lawsuit regarding the full-scale Russian invasion from February 24, 2022.

The Commission took a comprehensive approach to studying the consequences of Russian aggression and recorded not just certain types of crimes, but pointed to numerous cases of violations of both international humanitarian law and international human rights law, thus stressing that certain violations contain signs of consistency and ubiquity.

It should be noted that such reports are not a substitute for litigation. These facts must be investigated from a legal perspective as well. It is still ahead of us. However, for our team, they are interesting, first of all, from the perspective of facts that confirm the violation of human rights by Russia during the aggression and the conclusions of the Commission are quite detailed.

Quite indicative are the conclusions that the recorded facts allow us to talk not only about a number of committed war crimes but also about crimes against humanity. I consider the latter a good step forward and a new level for bringing Russia to justice.

Are there any questions that researchers have not paid attention to?

As I have already noted, the report indicates that the Commission approached the study of the Russian war against our state quite systematically, and many facts were studied regarding the liberated settlements. However, it is important to include what is happening in the territory that is currently seized by Russia in the investigation. Maybe even pay more attention to it.

How do you feel about the fact that the Commission allegedly did not find the crime of genocide?

The report of the Commission does not contain a clear conclusion that there are no signs of such a crime in Ukraine or there are no grounds to talk about it. The crime of genocide is quite difficult to investigate and prove, and one should understand that this process will take some time, including time to conclude the appropriate legal process.

Will these conclusions be considered in the trials that Ukraine will conduct?

Such reports often illustrate the general situation and record examples of the most striking, severe violations of human rights. Therefore, the facts specified in the conclusions of the commission can be considered by courts, primarily international ones, where Ukraine conducts a legal battle against the aggressor.

Our cases against Russia in the ECHR are a good illustration of this. For example, in the two largest interstate cases where there is already a decision on admissibility — Ukraine against Russia (regarding Crimea) and Ukraine and the Netherlands against Russia (regarding the eastern regions of Ukraine) — among the evidence that the ECHR considered were accounts, reports, resolutions of international organizations such as the UN General Assembly, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the UN Human Rights Office, etc., as well as of civil society organizations and international intelligence communities such as InformNapalm and Bellingcat.

The importance of such reports is also demonstrated by the fact that during the consideration of cases in the ECHR, Russia strongly contested the possibility of using such reports and accounts. I think this is the best example of the importance of the work the relevant missions do and their conclusions.

Do the findings of the commission influence the decision of the ICC, which recently issued an arrest warrant for Putin and Lvova-Belova?

It is the ICC that decides on which information to use, but in my opinion, this report of the Commission may be relevant, since the Commission, in particular, has studied in sufficient detail the illegal transfer of children from the occupied territories through the prism of international humanitarian law, recognizing that Russia’s actions constitute war crimes. And it is important that the Commission confirmed that the transfer of children was not justified, either for safety reasons or for their health, that Russia did not try to establish contact with the parents of the children or Ukraine, did not contribute to the reunion of families, etc. This is a good illustration of the overall picture and actions of Russia in this matter. Although the Commission and the ICC are independent of each other, the report of the former and the warrants of the latter complement each other well.

The findings of the Independent UN Commission debunk many fakes of Putin’s propaganda

The Commission has confirmed that the major attacks of which Russia is accused were indiscriminate. In other words, they did not think what they were shelling and who they were targeting. This also applies to widely publicized cases, such as the attack on March 16, 2022, in the Drama Theatre in Mariupol during the city’s siege, which resulted in deaths and injuries to multiple people; the attack on April 8, 2022, on the train station in Kramatorsk, resulting in 59 dead and 92 injured, as well as the attack on June 27, 2022, on the shopping mall in Kremenchuk, resulting in 21 dead and dozens of injured.

The report also mentions the well-known attack on March 9, 2022, on the maternity ward of Primary Health Care Centre No. 3 in Mariupol, which killed at least one pregnant woman and her unborn child. Even if the Russian armed forces had military targets in mind when carrying out attacks, the special protected status of medical facilities should have forced them to exercise greater caution.

The Commission concluded that the destruction of power substations, power plants and other energy-producing facilities, which are essential for survival, caused significant damage to the civilian population. The systematic targeting of energy-related installations has, during certain periods, deprived large portions of the civilian population of electricity, water and sanitation, heating, and telecommunications, and has hampered access to health and education Despite public reports of civilian casualties after the first few attacks, the Russian military continued to strike energy infrastructure. The Commission concluded that these attacks by the Russian armed forces were inappropriate and constituted a war crime of excessive incidental death, injury, or damage. The Commission found that these attacks were widespread and systematic in nature and could amount to a crime against humanity.

During the hostilities, the Russian armed forces exposed the civilian population to significant risks. The Commission found that, on repeated occasions, [Russians] deliberately positioned their troops or equipment in residential areas, and have, at times, forced civilians to remain there or in the proximity of their positions. And this is another example of the fact that the Russians constantly accuse their enemies of what they do themselves.

The Commission emphasized some elements that are common to the various systematic violations it found. In cases of executions and torture, the perpetrators mostly prosecuted individuals for any form of real or perceived support for the Ukrainian armed forces or for any actions directed against the Russian armed forces.

During the initial period of Russian control of localities in Ukraine, many of the wilful killings, unlawful confinement, rapes, and sexual violence were committed in the context of house-to-house searches, which were aimed at locating supporters of the Ukrainian armed forces or finding weapons.

Furthermore, when Russian authorities controlled areas during longer periods of time, they established dedicated detention facilities, used more diverse methods of torture, and in addition, targeted persons who refused to cooperate. A wider array of perpetrators have been involved in the commission of unlawful confinement, torture, and sexual and gender-based violence, according to victims and witnesses, including the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, the National Guard of Russia and its subordinate units, and Russian-aligned armed groups from the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.

Evidence collected shows a widespread pattern of summary executions in areas that Russian armed forces controlled in 17 localities of the Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Kyiv, and Sumy regions, with the highest number in the Kyiv region, including in the town of Bucha. The commission confirmed the execution of 65 men, two women, and a 14-year-old boy.

The Commission has found a pattern of attacks against civilians on the move in Kharkiv, Kyiv, and Sumy regions when they were under Russian armed forces’ control. It documented 18 such cases in February and March 2022, in which 14 men, eight women, a girl, and three boys were killed. Six other civilians were injured. Among the considered cases, the majority were committed in Kyiv region. In many of these instances, the Commission found enough evidence to conclude that Russian armed forces were responsible for these attacks.

Russian authorities confined persons of different occupations with a majority of young or middle-aged men, including any person formerly associated with Ukrainian armed forces, local officials, state personnel, current and former law enforcement employees, activists and journalists, education personnel, employees of the Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant, volunteers evacuating civilians, and others. They also confined people who were influential in their communities to coerce them and the local residents to cooperate. Some were taken into custody together with their relatives, including children, or in groups.

The criminals usually accused the detainees of real or perceived support for the Ukrainian armed forces, or found something they thought looked suspicious during phone searches. In numerous cases, Russian authorities detained people without any valid grounds, such as having relatives in Ukrainian security or law enforcement agencies, refusing to cooperate, participating in protests against the occupation, holding pro-Ukrainian views, or having certain types of tattoos

The Commission cited an example where ten elderly people died at once due to inhumane conditions of their detention in the basement of a school, while other detainees, including children, had to share the same space with the bodies of the dead.

Based on a large number of documented cases, the Commission concluded that the Russian authorities unlawfully detained civilians and other protected persons, often without good reason or due process. Detention conditions were generally inhumane.

The commission found widespread systematic cases of torture and inhumane treatment by the Russian authorities. Torture was particularly brutal against current or former servicemen of the Ukrainian armed forces, persons associated with them and their relatives. Local officials, law enforcement officers, employees of the Zaporizhia NPP, as well as civilians with pro-Ukrainian views also were subjected to torture.

One method of torture was electrocution with a military phone called “Tapik” connected to an electricity cable with clips applied on feet, fingers, or men’s genitals. The perpetrators referred to this as a “call to Lenin” or “call to Putin”.

The targeting of specific categories of persons and the consistent use of the same methods of torture across several regions they controlled in Ukraine for extended periods of time, led the Commission to find that Russian authorities used torture in a systematic and widespread manner. These circumstances, involving also elements of planning and available resources, indicate that the Russian authorities may have committed torture as crimes against humanity.

The Commission documented cases of sexual and gender-based violence, including violence against women, men, and girls, aged 4 to 82, in nine regions of Ukraine and in the Russian Federation. The Commission found that Russian authorities have committed sexual violence in two main situations: during house searches and against victims they had confined. Acts of forced nudity can be a form of sexual violence and can be a war crime.

The commission concluded that the annexation of four regions of Ukraine is unlawful, based upon principles of international law holding that “[n]o territorial acquisition resulting from the threat or use of force shall be recognized as legal“.

There were also cases of detention, ill-treatment and expulsion from their hometowns of school principals and teachers to force them to apply Russian curricula in schools. Threatening and intimidating messages were sent to parents to force them to enroll their children in schools operating under the Russian system in the occupied territories. The Commission has concluded that Russian authorities have exercised physical or moral coercion against civilians in occupied areas, in violation of international humanitarian law.

The Commission has identified three main situations in which Russian authorities have transferred Ukrainian children from one area they controlled in Ukraine to another or to the Russian Federation. Transfers affected children who lost parents or temporarily lost contact with them during hostilities; who were separated following the detention of a parent at a filtration point; and children in institutions. The Commission has reviewed incidents concerning the transfer of 164 children aged from four to 18 years from the Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Kherson regions. In none of the situations examined by the Commission did the movements of children appear to have met the requirements of international humanitarian law. The transfers were not justified by security or medical reasons. The Commission has concluded that the situations it has examined concerning the transfer and deportation of children, within Ukraine and to the Russian Federation respectively, violate international humanitarian law, and amount to a war crime.

The commission recommended that the Russian Federation: immediately stop aggression and all acts of violence; ensure that all perpetrators, including commanders and other superiors, and those ordering, soliciting, or inducing the commission of international crimes, are held accountable; limit the use of private military and security companies in the conflict, as they frequently engage in violations of international law, and are generally less accountable than regular forces.

Center for Strategic Communication and Information Security

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