The 50th Session of the Human Rights Council

13 June – 8 July 2022 

Item 2: Interactive Dialogue on the Oral Update of the High Commissioner on the Grave Human Rights and Humanitarian Situation in Mariupol 

 16th June 2022

By Conall Corrigan / GICJ

Executive Summary

On the 16th of June, Ms Michelle Bachelet, High Commissioner for Human Rights, provided an oral update on the grave human rights and humanitarian situation in Mariupol during an Interactive Dialogue at the 9th meeting of the 50th Session of the Human Rights Council (HRC).

The High Commissioner noted that her office is concerned about Russia’s non-compliance with its obligations under international humanitarian law (IHL) and the disastrous impact that hostilities have had on the lives of civilians within Mariupol. Ms Bachelet acknowledged that residents of the city have been forced to bear the brunt of the conflict and lamented the fact that, due to the inability of her office to access Mariupol since the beginning of hostilities in the area, she has not been able to gain first-hand access to the city; instead the office is relying on the accounts of those who have fled the area, and those who remain. She emphasised that Russia must uphold all of its international law obligations as the occupying power in Mariupol and stressed that her office should be granted effective access to the city, and other areas of Ukraine, in order to assess the treatment of civilians who have remained in the country. Ms Bachelet reminded the Council that pursuing justice and effective remedies for all victims of the conflict are crucial next steps for all authorities with the power to act. 

The countries concerned within the oral update were then provided with the opportunity to present statements. The Russian representative claimed that Mariupol had been effectively liberated from what he termed “Ukrainian Nazi formations” and that Russian forces had returned peace and calm to the city. Conversely, the Ukrainian representative noted that Russia’s actions in Mariupol have highlighted the state's complete disregard for human rights and called on the international community to work with Ukraine to ensure those responsible for violating IHL are held to account.

In the ensuing discussion, states voiced concern regarding the current human rights and humanitarian situation in Ukraine and stressed the need to pressure Russia to end the conflict and respect IHL. Most representatives expressed support for investigations carried out by the ICC, and other initiatives including the Independent International Committee of Inquiry on Ukraine (COI), which are examining violations of human rights and IHL stemming from the Russian invasion. Member states pleaded for the cessation of violence and displayed solidarity with the people of Ukraine.

 

Background

On the 12th of May, during the 34th Special Session of the HRC, Resolution S-34/1 on the deteriorating human rights situation in Ukraine stemming from Russian aggression was adopted by the Council. This resolution requested the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to present an oral update on the grave human rights and humanitarian situation in Mariupol, including an assessment of the nature and causes of violations of IHL and IHRL committed there, to the Human Rights Council at its 50th session under item 2, to be followed by an Interactive Dialogue. The need for an oral update on the situation in Mariupol was justified due to the Council's concerns surrounding the grave human rights and humanitarian situation in the city of Mariupol. This includes the near total destruction of its residential and civilian infrastructure caused by Russian bombing and shelling, reports of thousands of civilian casualties, and the limited progress in securing safe and unhindered evacuations to safe areas under the control of the Ukrainian government.

Oral Update by the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Ms Bachelet claimed that between February and April, Mariupol was likely the most dangerous area of Ukraine due to the intensity and extent of hostilities within the city which has left the area “shattered and depleted”. She noted that in the first week of March, hostilities in the Mariupol urban area were characterised by the use of weapons with wide area effects including shelling from tanks with heavy artillery, missiles, and airstrikes. The High Commissioner stressed that the Russian air attack of the Academic Regional Drama Theatre in Mariupol stood out as the deadliest attack in the area and was emblematic of the widespread harm to civilians perpetrated by Russian armed forces and affiliated groups. She noted that in the aftermath of Russian armed forces occupation of Mariupol on the 30th of April, up to 90 percent of residential buildings have been destroyed as well as 60 percent of private houses. Hence, Ms Bachelet questioned whether the parties to the conflict have complied with foundational principles underpinning IHL: the principles of distinction and proportionality. 

The High Commissioner claimed that her office has verified the deaths of 1348 civilians, including 70 children, but underlined that the actual death toll was likely much higher. She acknowledged that until all bodies are recovered and identified, it will be impossible to determine whether these deaths were caused directly by hostilities or a lack of adequate food, water, medical care, or other effects of living through the conflict. Hostilities in this area have resulted in the evacuation of an estimated 350,000 people and created devastating living conditions for those who have remained in the city. Large amounts of civilian infrastructure, including schools and medical facilities, have been decimated by hostilities. Ms Bachelet emphasised that as a result of the conflict, coupled with the cutting off of gas, electricity, and water to the city, hospitals have not been able to properly function. This has resulted in civilians struggling for basic utilities and social services such as medical care. The High Commissioner expressed concern about reports of the spread of infectious diseases including Cholera within Mariupol and bemoaned the fact that residents of the city are now heavily dependent on humanitarian services from Russian armed forces and affiliated groups and do not have the means to sustain a livelihood. 

The High Commissioner drew the Council's attention to the capturing of Ukrainian soldiers within Mariupol. Since early March, more than 2000 Ukrainian soldiers have been held as prisoners of war (POWs), and due to the OHCHRs inability to access the city, Ms Bachelet acknowledged that the UN has been unable to assess the conditions of their detention and treatment. The High Commissioner also expressed alarm over the alleged trials of three Ukrainian service persons who were convicted of the attempted seizure of territory controlled by Russian affiliated, armed groups in Donetsk and training for terrorist activities and mercenaryism. These individuals have subsequently been sentenced to death causing further alarm within the international community at the Russian state's disregard for international law. Concerns were raised regarding the adjudication of this decision as those on trial were unable to present a full defence and denied the right to a public and impartial hearing. Ms Bachelet emphasised that the denial of a fair trial is prohibited under international law and may amount to a war crime.

The High Commissioner summarised her remarks by underscoring that the Russian Federation must uphold all of its obligations under the applicable international law as the occupying power in Mariupol. She emphasised that her monitoring team must have effective access to Mariupol and other areas of Ukraine in order to document the current living conditions of those still in the city and uncover human rights violations which may have taken place. She reiterated that the horrors inflicted on the citizens of Mariupol will leave an indelible mark on Ukrainians for generations to come and reminded the Council that pursuing justice and effective remedies for all victims should be a crucial next step for all authorities who possess the power to act. 

The Russian representative claimed that he saw no point in meeting with the Council as Mariupol had been liberated from the control of “Ukrainian Nazi formations” and Russian armed forces had restored peace and calm to the city. He remarked that the authorities of the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) are providing water and electricity for houses and that public transport is operating as normal. The representative lambasted Europe and the United States for its unwillingness to discuss harms committed against the civilian population of the Donbas region by Ukrainian armed forces who he claimed practised “rampant neo-Nazism” and were responsible for the “repression of certain ethnic-religious and linguistic minorities”. 

The delegate claimed that a lack of political will by Kyiv to fulfil its obligations under the Minsk agreement have led to the current intensification of hostilities. Further blame was placed on North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the European Union (EU)  for failing to provide a peaceful solution to the conflict. Russia argued that the provision of weapons by international organisations to the Ukrainian armed forces encouraged them to continue engaging in warfare. The representative asserted that the Council was participating in another political propaganda farce and maintained that the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) is responsible for carrying out strikes against residential areas and civilian infrastructure, including schools and hospitals, in the DPR and the Luhansk People's Republic (LPR). He noted that law enforcement bodies within Russia and the DPR continue to receive new testimonies of criminal activities in Mariupol such as the targeted shelling by Ukrainian fighters of residential areas, the use of civilians as shields, and violence committed against locals. The delegate further claimed that the SSU has blocked humanitarian corridors and concluded by claiming that the OHCHR is becoming a conduit for the geopolitical interests of the collective west and departing from the principles of impartiality and objectivity in its actions.

The Ukrainian delegate reminded the Council that over 100 days have passed since the launch of attacks against Ukraine by Russia and that Mariupol has experienced the worst horrors of the war. The representative noted that for almost 3 months, Mariupol has heroically resisted Russia’s assault and endured the constant shelling and bombing of the city. She added that the determination and courage of those who defended Mariupol from Russian invaders is emblematic of the immeasurable heroism the Ukrainian people have displayed throughout the conflict. Since Russia’s besiegement of the city, the Ukrainian government estimates that at least 20,000 civilians may have been killed while thousands have been forcibly transferred to Russia or other occupied territories. The delegate emphasised that Mariupol has been turned to ash and that, for those still remaining, life in the city has resorted to ensuring their survival. She informed the Council that thousands of civilians remain buried under the rubble of destroyed buildings and that Russian armed forces and affiliated groups are destroying evidence of their crimes. Many have been forced to live in basements due to the destruction of their homes while experts have stated that the outbreak of incredibly dangerous infectious diseases in Mariupol could lead to the deaths of 10,000 people by the end of the year. 

The representative stressed that there can be no impunity for human rights violations committed by Russian armed forces and called on the international community to provide accountability for crimes committed against the Ukrainian people. She urged states to join Ukraine in demanding that Moscow follow its obligations under IHL and engage with all relevant parties to ensure the safe return of the almost 2,500 POWs under Russian detention. The delegate emphasised that Mariupol will forever remain an integral part of Ukraine and that the international community has a moral responsibility to help Ukraine in ensuring that justice in Mariupol is restored and the fundamental principles of IHRL are able to prevail. 

Sweden on behalf of the Nordic and Baltic countries, raised concerns over grave violations of IHL and IHRL by Russian armed forces and affiliated groups including the use of sexual and gender-based violence and the shelling of hospitals. The representative noted that such acts are not exceptions in Russia’s warfare strategy and have become all too commonplace. She stressed the need to pressure Russia to end the war in Ukraine and respect IHL. The delegate emphasised that the Russian state must allow for the safe return of all Ukrainian civilians forcibly removed to Russia and those responsible for their deportation must be held accountable for their actions. Sweden reiterated its support of investigations by the ICC and the COI into alleged human rights violations stemming from Russian aggression within Ukraine. 

The Head of the Delegation of the European Union to the United Nations, expressed dismay over the catastrophic human rights and humanitarian situation in Mariupol. The EU stressed that presently the most basic needs of civilians on the ground are not being met and demanded that Russia ensures the safe and unhindered delivery and access of aid to those within Mariupol. The representative urged the Russian state to allow for the safe and voluntary passage of civilians in whichever direction they wish as also indicated by the European Court of Human Rights in March 2022. Concerns were raised about reports of forced deportations of Ukrainian citizens, including children, from Mariupol to Russia in violation of international law. The EU urged Russia to respect the rights and dignity of POWs and treat them in accordance with the requirements of IHL. The delegation criticised Russia’s attempts to establish illegitimate alternative structures within Mariupol in violation of international law and the Ukrainian constitution. The EU reaffirmed its support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and concluded by imploring Russia to end its war of aggression with Ukraine and withdraw troops immediately. 

The representative of Venezuela, voiced concern over the worsening of the conflict in Ukraine and attributed the origins of hostilities to years of human rights violations committed in the Donbas region by Ukrainian armed forces. The delegate claimed that the loss of life in Ukraine is a result of the breaking down of the Minsk accords at the instigation of the United States government. He added that the ongoing expansion of NATO towards the east of Europe, and growing hostility against Russia since 2014, has brought clear threats to the region. Venezuela argued that NATO countries have armed Ukraine in a move that will prolong the conflict with unimaginable consequences for the wider world. He rejected what he termed “the unilateral course of measures imposed on Russia” which he claimed have intensified the conflict and undermined the protection of human rights within Ukraine. He encouraged a greater level of diplomatic understanding by the UN through constructive dialogue between all parties to the conflict in order to preserve life, human rights, and stability in the region. 

The delegation of the United Kingdom, stated that all war crimes committed as a result of the conflict must be investigated and those responsible held to account for their actions. The representative stressed that all POWs must be treated within the requirements of IHL and called on the Russian state to respect international law. He noted that the UK has led efforts to refer the situation in Ukraine to the ICC and will make further efforts to contribute to its investigative work and support international partners who are assisting the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine with its domestic investigation. The delegate reaffirmed the UK’s support of Ukraine and its people and noted that the British government has already contributed £3bn worth of economic and military assistance to Ukraine as well as humanitarian aid. 

The representative of the United States, claimed to be appalled at atrocities carried out by Russian armed forces in Mariupol, and throughout Ukraine, resulting in the deaths of thousands of civilians. She noted that Russian armed forces and affiliated groups have deliberately destroyed civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and schools, and targeted humanitarian corridors which has prevented vital aid from being delivered to people within Mariupol. The delegate emphasised that the Russian states actions demonstrate brutality, callousness, and a wanton disregard for the immeasurable human toll this unprovoked war has caused. The United States reiterated its support of the documentation of conflict-related human rights abuses and violations of IHL including war crimes committed by Russian forces and their proxies. The representative concluded by commending the work of the OHCHR monitoring mission and the newly established COI as well as the war crimes office of the Ukrainian Prosecutor General. 

Various NGOs and National Human Rights Institutions informed the Council that, as of May, over one million people have been displaced since the beginning of the conflict. Groups urged for a cessation of hostilities and urged the Russian state to withdraw troops from occupied areas of Ukraine and ensure the safe return of civilians who have been forcibly displaced. NGOs noted that, although it is difficult to access accurate information on the situation on the ground, the use of satellite imagery analysis has uncovered mass graves within Mariupol. Resultingly, speakers noted that Russia is currently in breach of the Genocide Convention and reminded states of their obligations under Article 1 of said convention to prevent mass killings and punish those who commit genocidal acts. An emphasis was placed on the need to provide legal avenues for justice, accountability, and reparations for the Ukrainian people. Many groups discussed the appalling conditions of Russian filtration camps and the poor treatment of those who have been processed within them. The failure of the Russian state to ensure safe drinking water and sanitary conditions within both the camps and Mariupol, leaves an estimated 100,000 residents at risk of serious disease and violates Russia’s international law obligations to guarantee the right to water, health, and housing. Speakers implored the international community to coordinate their investigative efforts to ensure the accurate collection of information to further aid all inquiries into crimes committed in Mariupol and throughout Ukraine as a whole. 

Concluding Remarks of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

The High Commissioner noted that, although her office does not have access to territories under Russian control, her team is able to monitor and document the situation by speaking with people who have left the city and communicating remotely with those who remain. Ms Bachelet emphasised that the UN will continue to advocate for the accountability of those who have committed crimes and informed the Council that the information her office has received will be collected and shared with the necessary accountability mechanisms. Regarding the rights of minority groups within Mariupol, the High Commissioner noted that the OHCHR was aware of reports of individual instances of people of African descent facing discrimination during evacuation and when crossing the border in February and March to escape from areas affected by Russian armed attacks on Ukraine. She acknowledged that the situation of minorities in Mariupol is yet to be fully assessed due to an inability to engage with members of minority groups in the area.

Many states asked for clarification on the situation of POWs within Mariupol. Ms Bachelet informed the Council that her office has received credible reports of abusive practices committed against POWs on both sides. Currently, it is estimated that more than 2000 Ukrainian soldiers in Mariupol have been taken as POWs since March, however, due to the lack of access to POWs in territory controlled by Russia, the OHCHR has not been able to assess their numbers, conditions of detention, or treatment. The High Commissioner noted that her office has interviewed Ukrainian servicemen captured in Mariupol who told them they were beaten by Russian soldiers. She stressed the need for independent monitoring teams to have unfettered access to all places of detention in order to ascertain if POWs have suffered from a deprivation of their liberty.

Regarding the Russian state's use of forcible transfer, Ms Bachelet acknowledged that the exact number of people relocated from Mariupol to territories controlled by Russia or affiliated armed groups remains unclear. She expressed concern that people who have been forcibly transferred may lack the financial means to enjoy freedom of movement. The High Commissioner concluded her remarks by urging the Russian state to cease its operations in Ukraine and safely return all forcibly displaced Ukrainian civilians back to their country of origin.

Position of Geneva International Centre for Justice

Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) condemns Russian aggression within Mariupol and throughout Ukraine as a whole. The indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks carried out by Russian armed forces and affiliated armed groups represent a direct threat to Ukrainian citizen’s right to life and greatly undermine the object and purpose of the UN Charter. It is vital that Russia agrees to abide by its obligations under international law and commits to withdrawing all troops based in Ukraine. The Russian state must provide the OHCHR monitoring team with unfettered and unhindered access to Mariupol to allow the UN to assess the living conditions of civilians on the ground as well as the treatment of POWs within detention facilities. Moreover, it is essential that the international community, and all investigative teams involved in documenting human rights violations perpetrated in the region, coordinate efforts to hold all actors accountable for any crimes they may have committed. 


Ukraine, Russia, Ukraine-Russia War, Aggression, Occupation, International Humanitarian Law, International Human Rights Law, Mariupol, Interactive Dialogue, HRC50, Human Lives, Human Rights, Justice, GICJ, Geneva International Centre for Justice, Geneva

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