Russian forces are committing wide-ranging atrocities against civilians in Ukraine, a United Nations monitoring mission has found, detailing hundreds of cases of civilians being detained, tortured and in some cases summarily executed since the full-scale invasion began.
The report, which was released by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Tuesday, examines Russia and Ukraine’s compliance with international human-rights and humanitarian laws. It covers the 15-month period between Feb. 24, 2022, to May 23, and is based on the findings of the UN human rights monitoring mission in Ukraine, which interviewed hundreds of victims and witnesses.
“We documented over 900 cases of arbitrary detention of civilians, including children, and elderly people. The vast majority of these cases were perpetrated by the Russian Federation,” said Matilda Bogner, the head of the monitoring mission, in a statement.
Of the cases detailed in the report, 864 involved citizens arbitrarily detained by Russian forces, 77 of whom were summarily executed.
The mission uncovered 161 places of detention and found Russian forces detained people in occupied regions of Ukraine, Russia, as well as two sites in Belarus that Russian forces used as temporary or transit places of detention.
Detention that does not conform with international humanitarian law is referred to as “unlawful confinement” and is considered a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
The report said that many civilians were detained during Russia’s so-called filtration process in occupied territories, in which people are held for days or weeks while authorities check their backgrounds – in search of those who may support the Ukrainian armed forces and to gather information about residents. Many detentions during this process failed to comply with both international human-rights law and international humanitarian law standards, it added.
“Russian armed forces, law enforcement and penitentiary authorities engaged in widespread torture and ill-treatment of civilian detainees,” said Ms. Bogner, adding that torture was used to force victims to confess to helping Ukrainian forces, compel them to co-operate, or to intimidate them.
Some torture methods included strangling, waterboarding, electrocution, stress positions for long periods, exposure to cold temperatures or to a hot box – which means putting someone in a box at high temperatures where they experience extreme heat, dehydration, or death.
The report said detainees were also subjected to deprivation of food and water, mock executions and beatings. They also documented 36 cases of sexual violence against 25 men and 11 women, perpetrated by Russian actors, including rape, threats of rape against victims and their loved ones, electrocution to genitals or nipples, beating of genitals and forced stripping.
The UN mission also documented 75 cases of arbitrary detention by Ukrainian forces, mostly of people suspected of conflict-related criminal offences. The report said that changes to its criminal codes after the introduction of martial law have given Ukrainian officials wider discretion to detain those perceived to be a national-security threat. The changes, along with practices of Ukrainian security forces, have fostered an environment conducive to arbitrary detention, it said.
“We documented that over half of those arbitrarily detained were subjected to torture or ill-treatment by Ukrainian security forces. This happened while people were being interrogated, usually immediately after arrest,” she said.
Ms. Bogner said Ukraine gave the mission unrestricted confidential access to official places of detention and detainees with the exception of a group of 87 Russian sailors detained on their vessel. Russia did not grant any access.
On the same day the UN released its report, Beth Van Schaack, Washington’s envoy for the prevention and prosecution of war crimes, held a virtual press briefing to discuss efforts to hold Russian perpetrators accountable.
She raised the work of the International Criminal Court, adding that the prosecutor has made his first move by issuing arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova. The warrants were issued in March and the ICC said they are allegedly responsible for the war crime of unlawful deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.
Another avenue, she said, is the work of the Ukrainian courts. She said the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group is a joint initiative of the United States, Britain and the European Union, and is fully operational.
“We have deployed a number of experts to work side by side with their Ukrainian counterparts to help sift through the now tens of thousands of recorded potential war crimes and other atrocities,” she said.
Additionally, she said, European countries are opening investigations when perpetrators end up within their borders. And in the United States, she said, there is an effort under way to prosecute war crimes even if neither the perpetrators nor the victims are U.S. citizens. The U.S. requires the perpetrator, however, to be present in the country, but they can initiate investigations.
There is also the proposed special tribunal for the crime of aggression. Ukraine has been calling for the creation of a special tribunal to prosecute Russian leaders. The United Nations defines the crime as the invasion or attack by the armed forces of one state on the territory of another state, as well as any military occupations.
The ICC does not have jurisdiction among non-member states to prosecute the crime of aggression. Neither Russia nor Ukraine is a member – neither is the United States, China or India – though Ukraine recognizes its jurisdiction.
Dr. Van Schaack said an international centre for the prosecution of aggression in The Hague will serve as a prosecutorial office to begin the investigative work necessary to lay the foundation for eventual prosecutions of specific individual leaders who planned and executed Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine.