The 51st Session of the Human Rights Council
12th September – 7th October 2022
Agenda Item 10: Technical Assistance and Capacity Building
4th October 2022
By Conall Corrigan / GICJ
Since the beginning of hostilities in Ukraine in February 2022, those affected by the conflict have endured unspeakable suffering and devastation. This is the view of Mr Christian Salazar Volkmann, Director of the Field Operations and Technical Cooperation Division at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who noted that civilians continue to bear the brunt of the ongoing fighting resulting in the widespread denial of human rights in affected areas throughout Ukraine. On the 4th of October, Mr Volkmann presented the report from the Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) on the human rights situation in Ukraine between the 1st of February and the 31st of July 2022 during the 51st session of the Human Rights Council (HRC). During his oral update, Mr Volkmann noted that since the OHCHR last updated the Council in July it has increased its presence in Ukraine and conducted more than 1000 interviews with victims and witnesses of human rights violations. His report contains updates on numerous developments within Ukraine including the increasing use of forced deportation by Russian armed forces and affiliated armed groups, the prevalence of conflict-related sexual violence, and the imposition of filtration camps on civilians.
Mr Volkmann reiterated that the OHCHR’s commitment to monitoring the human rights situation in Ukraine is unwavering and that it will continue to report publicly and amplify the voices of victims to the HRC. He lambasted the Russian Federation for its purported annexation of the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia which he stressed would risk imperilling a number of fundamental freedoms and creating obstacles to accessing basic services including healthcare and education. He concluded by appealing to the Council and the international community to do everything in its power to prevent the further escalation of the conflict.
Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) reiterates its condemnation of the ongoing violations of international human rights law (IHRL) and international humanitarian law (IHL) in Ukraine stemming from Russia’s unprovoked aggression. The attempted redrawing of legally recognised international borders by force must be unequivocally condemned by the international community. Such acts significantly impact the well-being of all persons on either side of the redrawn lines and create serious challenges to fulfilling an array of human rights norms. Members of the HRC must continue to exert pressure on the Russian Federation to end its aggression towards Ukraine and encourage all efforts at restoring peace.
On the 13th of July 2021, during the 47th session of the Human Rights Council, member states passed Resolution 47/22 which acknowledged the technical assistance provided to Ukraine by the OHCHR in the field of human rights and stressed the need to provide further assistance in this area to ensure the Ukrainian government could adequately respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of all persons within its jurisdiction.
However, since February 2022, the context of the human rights situation in Ukraine has dramatically shifted. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, numerous and blatant human rights abuses have been committed throughout the country affecting the well-being of the civilian population. Resolution 47/22 invites the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to compile a report and present it to the member states of the HRC on the human rights situation in Ukraine as part of an interactive dialogue. As such, the Director of the Field Operations and Technical Cooperation Division at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights provided an update on the current human rights situation in Ukraine stemming from Russian aggression.
Summary of the OHCHR’s Report on the Situation in Ukraine
On the 29th of September, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released its thirty-fourth report on the human rights situation in Ukraine, covering events in the country between February and July 2022. The report underscores the devastating impact Russia’s armed attack has had on Ukraine and the various ways in which it has undermined the entire spectrum of human rights affecting both civilians and combatants. This includes the use of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, torture and ill-treatment, and conflict-related sexual violence.
Hostilities in Ukraine have exacted a heavy toll on the civilian population. The OHCHR has recorded a total of 12,649 civilian casualties within the timeframe examined as well as 5,385 deaths. However, it is probable that these numbers are an underestimate of actual figures. Moreover, civilian infrastructure and housing have been significantly affected by the conflict. So far, the OHCHR has recorded damage to or the complete destruction of 252 medical facilities, 384 educational facilities and 90 places of worship. Such violations of IHRL and IHL constitute a blatant disregard for the rights to health, work, education, housing, and freedom of religion or belief. While the OHCHR notes that most victims of the conflict have been men, concern has been expressed regarding the harsh impact it is having on groups in vulnerable situations, including older people and persons with disabilities. Much of the blame for the large-scale damage caused within Ukraine has been placed on the extensive use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in or near populated areas which the report argues must end immediately. Additionally, the OHCHR reports that hostilities have caused the mass displacement of the civilian population which has undoubtedly impacted the enjoyment of basic human rights. At the end of July, over 6.7 million people were confirmed as being displaced within Ukraine and an additional 6.3 million were confirmed as being refugees outside Ukraine. However, it notes that these numbers are likely to be much higher as some men may refrain from registering as suffering from internal displacement due to a fear of being conscripted into the Ukrainian armed forces. The report commends the Ukrainian government for organising the safe evacuation of the civilian population from conflict-affected areas and providing the displaced population with basic accommodation, access to healthcare, and financial assistance.
The OHCHR concluded by reiterating its calls for the Russian Federation to cease its aggression against Ukraine and engage in diplomacy and constructive dialogue to bring the conflict to a peaceful end. All parties to the conflict were encouraged to respect their obligations under IHRL and IHL. The report also provides several suggestions for all parties to adopt in order to reduce any further escalation of the conflict. These recommendations include the need for all warring groups to fully comply with the IHL principles of distinction, proportionality, and precaution; a call for effective investigations into all allegations of violations of IHL and IHRL; the granting of unimpeded confidential access to the OHCHR and other independent monitors to all places of detention; and the delivery of humanitarian relief for civilians in need, as well as guarantees around the protection of all affected civilians. Moreover, the report calls for the international community to take several steps to ensure victims of human rights abuses in Ukraine have access to justiciable remedies. This includes working collectively to guarantee effective legal avenues are in place to ensure reparations for all violations of IHL and IHRL as well as the need for states to support all accountability efforts at the national and international levels and coordinate effectively to provide justice for all victims of the conflict.
Oral Update on the Report of the OHCHR
Mr Volkmann began by noting that since the start of the reporting period in February, the Russian Federation’s widespread armed attack on Ukraine has resulted in a dire human rights situation across the country, affecting civilians and combatants. Currently, the OHCHR has staff deployed in 6 locations across Ukraine and its report is based on information gathered by the mission through 78 field visits, 20 visits to places of detention, and more than 1000 interviews with victims and witnesses of human rights violations. As of the 3rd of October, the OHCHR has documented 6114 civilian deaths, including 390 children, and 9132 injuries including 690 children. However, he stressed that the real figures are likely to be considerably higher. The vast majority of civilian casualties documented by the OHCHR have been caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, for the most part, by the Russian armed forces and affiliated armed groups. This has included shelling from heavy artillery, multiple launch rocket system missiles and the use of cluster munitions. Mr Volkmann acknowledged that while the OHCHR has not been able to assess compliance with IHL for each individual incident, the sheer scale of destruction within certain areas gives the indication that violations have occurred. Hostilities within Ukraine have been responsible for destroying homes and critical civilian infrastructure on a scale which strongly suggests a consistent failure to comply with the rules of IHL governing the conduct of hostilities including the principles of distinction, proportionality, precaution, and the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks.
During the reporting period, the OHCHR noted the damage or destruction of 252 medical facilities and 384 educational facilities. Moreover, people in vulnerable situations have been forced to live in degrading conditions unable to access their rights to housing, education, health, water, and food. Mr Volkmann admitted that it is very likely that many people, particularly older persons, will face the upcoming winter in damaged homes or without heating supplies. Beyond the direct impact of hostilities, the OHCHR has voiced concerns regarding the right to freedom of opinion, expression, and peaceful assembly. Such rights have been restricted in territories occupied by the Russian Federation or controlled by Russian armed forces and affiliated armed groups. Ukrainian television channels and radio stations have been disconnected and replaced with channels from the Russian Federation or self-proclaimed republics. In Crimea, the Russian Federation has implemented legislation undermining an array of fundamental freedoms and teachers have been pressured to endorse the armed attack. Mr Volkmann expressed his fears about the shrinking civic space and highly restrictive environment in these areas which deter people from reporting the rights violations that they have experienced or witnessed. The OHCHR also recognised that the Ukrainian parliament has introduced a ban on Russian publications which has not yet been signed by the President. Although he acknowledged that the freedom of information and expression can be restricted in times of public emergency, he cautioned that such bans must be exceptional, necessary, and timebound.
Regarding the right to life, liberty, and security, Mr Volkmann discussed the range of violations that have been committed in this area. He informed the Council that the OHCHR continues to corroborate the alleged killings of hundreds of civilians in over 30 settlements in Kyiv and another 3 regions while under the control of Russian armed forces in February and March. His report has documented that civilians were shot fleeing in their vehicles, crossing the road by foot, or gathering basic foodstuffs. In other cases, those killed were summarily executed and victims were found with signs of torture on their bodies. Disturbing accounts have also emerged regarding the treatment of civilians and prisoners of war (POW) held in detention. Enforced disappearances and the arbitrary detention of civilians have become widespread in territories controlled by Russian armed forces or affiliated armed groups. During the reporting period, the OHCHR documented 407 such cases involving 359 men, 47 women and one boy in which 18 victims were found dead. Moreover, the monitoring mission also documented 47 cases of arbitrary arrest and detention, as well as 31 cases that may amount to enforced disappearances, committed by Ukrainian law enforcement bodies. Most of these victims were released, although 2 remain missing. Mr Volkmann noted that these reports of torture or ill-treatment of both civilians and POWs continue and in most documented cases, Ukrainian POWs were subjected to ill-treatment by the detaining power. In 2 of these cases, Ukrainian servicemen were tortured to death. He also recognised that the report documented cases of torture and ill-treatment by Ukrainian armed forces towards POWs - albeit on a lesser scale.
Mr Volkmann lamented the OHCHR’s lack of access to places of internment of POWs. Although he underscored that human rights officers have enjoyed unimpeded access to such places controlled by the Ukrainian government, he highlighted that the monitoring mission has not been granted confidential access to POWs interned by the Russian Federation and affiliated armed groups despite numerous requests. The prevalence of conflict-related sexual violence was also discussed although Mr Volkmann conceded that it remains difficult to assess the breadth of this phenomenon. During the reporting period, the OHCHR documented 43 cases of conflict-related sexual violence the majority of which were committed by Russian security forces. A further 13 cases have since been verified and Mr Volkmann added that his office will continue to monitor this issue closely.
Mr Volkmann concluded his oral update by discussing the purported annexation of the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. Rather than making efforts to resolve hostilities, he emphasised that the Russian Federation had taken steps to deepen the conflict and exacerbate the precarious human rights situation in the country. He reminded the Council that any annexation of a state’s territory by another state through the use of force is a violation of the principles of the UN Charter and international law. He stressed that the attempt to redraw Ukraine’s borders will have serious impacts on families, communities, and societies. In his closing remarks, Mr Volkmann asserted that the only way to end the suffering in Ukraine was by ending the war. In line with this, he encouraged the international community to make all efforts to bring the conflict to a peaceful conclusion and ensure respect for IHRL and IHL.
Statement of the Country Concerned
The Ukrainian representative highlighted that the Council was meeting at a crucial time for international law and order. She stressed that the ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine has been accompanied by egregious human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity unseen since the second world war. These acts, she noted, were part of a deliberate attempt by Russia to destroy the UN Charter which places human rights at its centre. The delegate added that as Russia’s plans to conquer Ukraine continue to fail, its potential nuclear threat puts the world on the edge of potential devastation. She warned that Russia’s shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant has exposed the entire continent to nuclear danger forcing people around the world to live in fear and insecurity.
Ukraine commended the report of the OHCHR and noted that it clearly testifies to the destructive impact of Russia’s war on the human rights of the Ukrainian people. The representative emphasised that innocent people are being killed and their homes and lives have been destroyed since the beginning of Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified war. She added that just days before this meeting, 16 Russian missiles had killed 30 and injured more than 100 people in a civilian convoy in Zaporizhzhia. She discussed the impact of such attacks on the ground including people wandering aimlessly amongst the debris searching for loved ones. She added that the recent discovery of a mass grave with 440 Ukrainian bodies in liberated Izyum is another example of the numerous war crimes committed in Ukraine by Russia. The delegate informed the Council that nearly 1/5 of Ukraine’s territory, including thousands of towns and villages, remains occupied by Russia, however, the scale of violations committed in those areas will become clear only after their liberation.
The representative stressed that Russia’s use of filtration camps stands in violation of the Geneva Conventions and that any Ukrainian citizen who has been forcibly deported to Russia must be returned home. She further accused the Russian government of organising the illegal adoption of Ukrainian children once they have been forcibly transferred from occupied areas of Ukraine to Russia. The delegate emphasised that such action will result in 200,000 Ukrainian children being deprived of their right to have a decent childhood in their homeland. Regarding the recent supposed annexation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine underscored that by forcing people to fill out a ballot paper at gunpoint in a sham referendum, Russia has committed a crime against the right to participate in free and fair elections. She stressed that Russia’s attempts to annex parts of these regions will not have any legal consequences for Ukraine’s sovereign territory or alter its legally recognised borders.
In the view of Ukraine, Russia’s illegal conscription of civilians into its army within the territory it controls represents a blatant human rights violation as it forces them to fight against their own state. The representative noted that in occupied Crimea, mobilisation efforts were particularly focussed on Crimean Tatars who received over 80% of the draft notices from the Russian armed forces. She added that this amounted to nothing more than an attempt to ethnically cleanse the peninsula of the indigenous people disloyal to Moscow.
The representative concluded her statement by asserting that Russia consistently violates the international legal order and numerous core human rights principles. As a result of this, she claimed that it does not deserve a seat in any international multilateral institution for its deep contempt for multilateralism. She reaffirmed to the Council that Ukraine will not stop until it liberates its territories and holds Russia accountable for its crimes against its people. She appealed to the international community to aid Ukraine in these efforts for the sake of world justice and peace.
Estonia on behalf of the Nordic-Baltic countries emphasised its support for the report of the OHCHR and noted that each day the world continues to bear witness to the horror of Russia’s atrocities in Ukraine. The representative underlined that since the full-scale invasion, over one million Ukrainians have been unlawfully deported to Russia or forcibly displaced to occupied territories. He urged Russia to abide by its obligations under international law and end these practices. The delegate reaffirmed the country’s commitment to stand with Ukraine and seek accountability and justiciable remedies for Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Estonia asserted that it will never recognise Russia’s illegal referenda in Ukraine’s occupied territories and their illegitimate annexation. The representative reminded states that international law prohibits states from recognising Russia’s purported annexation.
The European Union thanked the director for the update and expressed its support for the human rights monitoring mission in Ukraine. The representative reiterated the EU’s strong condemnation of all violations of international law committed in the context of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Such violations, the delegate noted, require firm condemnation by all UN members and all perpetrators must be held accountable. The representative highlighted the global impact of Russia’s actions in Ukraine stressing that the atrocities, destruction, and suffering taking place as a result of flagrant violations of the UN Charter have led to human rights challenges across the globe by causing global economic, food, and energy crises. The EU appealed to the Council to adopt a united front to face these issues by helping countries most in need. She informed the Council that the EU is facilitating new routes for grain exports from Ukraine and mobilising support to respond to food insecurity. The delegate concluded by urging Russia to abide by its obligations under international law and stop its aggression against Ukraine entirely, unconditionally, and immediately.
Denmark on behalf of the 46 member states on the group of friends of accountability following the aggression against Ukraine condemned Russia’s referendums in Ukraine and the announced illegal annexation of four regions of the country. The representative expressed shock at the discovery of mass graves in formerly Russian-controlled areas and was alarmed at the continuing and widespread reports of human rights abuses and violations of IHL across Ukraine. He denounced the use of filtration operations within Ukraine which include the torturing of civilians and military personnel as well as the separation of families and the confiscation of Ukrainian passports. The delegate added that mounting evidence suggests Russian authorities are reportedly disappearing thousands of Ukrainian civilians during the filtration process with reports of many being summarily executed. He implored Russia to immediately halt its filtration operation and end its practice of enforced disappearances. He concluded by reaffirming Denmark’s respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The Russian delegation described the report as being one-sided and imbalanced which reflected western approaches to the reporting of the Ukrainian crisis. The representative lambasted the OHCHR for failing to adopt a principled approach and issue an honest account of all war crimes, crimes against humanity, and human rights violations for which the Ukrainian government bears responsibility. Russia conceded, however, that the report did contain references to the indiscriminate use by the armed forces of Ukraine of heavy weapons, the placement of military equipment within proximity to civilian sites, the cruel treatment of POWs, cases of enforced disappearances and legislative initiatives aimed at banning Russian publications. The representative concluded by expressing frustration that the OHCHR presents this information in a vague and blurred fashion which she claimed gives free rein to the Ukrainian government and facilitates its impunity.
The representative of Belarus asserted that the OHCHR and its bodies must maintain their respective impartiality and objectivity. She added that one-sided assessments and double standards when evaluating the situation of the victims of the conflict are unacceptable. The delegate stressed that politicised accusations against Russia in the HRC will not lead to an end to the conflict and both sides must agree to an immediate cessation of hostilities to prevent a rise in the number of victims. The delegate criticised states for using the conflict in Ukraine as an excuse for the energy and food crisis and highlighted that billions of dollars for weapons to fuel the conflict have been allocated by member states. The representative lamented the use of sanctions applied against Belarus which she claimed has restricted the ability of the country to contribute to global food security. Belarus stated that the international community is failing to demonstrate the necessary political will to end the conflict and argued that peace could be achieved in a matter of days if states made a committed effort to achieve it.
NGOs and Civil Society Organisations
Numerous NGOs and civil society organisations expressed their solidarity with the people of Ukraine whom they noted are experiencing ongoing tragedies and violations of international law. Many groups voiced their horror over the findings of the OHCHR’s report and expressed their deep concern about the ongoing hostilities and the deteriorating situation in Ukraine. These organisations argued that today more than ever the UN must demonstrate its ability to protect human rights and urged the Council to take greater action to help the people of Ukraine. Many speakers acknowledged that if the conflict persists, we will continue to witness a worsening humanitarian situation. In line with this, they acknowledged that it is important for member states to work towards organising peace talks and engaging in negotiations to end the conflict.
NGOs stated that the thousands of innocent people who have already lost their lives and the millions of civilians who have been forcibly displaced, add an extra impetus for the UN to take a much stronger stance than the half-hearted efforts it has engaged in so far to urge all parties to the conflict to agree to a ceasefire. Others stressed that it is vital for UN mechanisms to continue to work rigorously to document the truth about the war crimes being committed by Russia against Ukraine and prevent the spread of untruthful propaganda. Additionally, many appealed for the Council to support the Ukrainian judicial system and ensure it can adequately apply international law and adjudicate accountability for violations of international law committed during the conflict.
Regarding the use of forced deportation, Mr Volkmann stated that the OHCHR has documented several cases involving the forced deportation of Ukrainian civilians who have been displaced to the Russian Federation including a dozen cases where members of the Russian armed forces and affiliated groups ordered civilians in Mariupol to leave their homes and brought them to territory in Ukraine occupied by Russia or to the Russian Federation. He reminded the Council that this practice was forbidden under IHL and may amount to war crimes. He assured the Council that his office will continue to examine these allegations, however, the monitoring team has not been able to gather further information on the forced transfer of unaccompanied children to Russian-occupied territory or the Russian Federation.
The director noted that the monitoring team are trying to assess allegations of conflict-related sexual violence but this remains difficult as many survivors are not willing to report the crimes that have been committed or be interviewed about them. He added that his team has stepped up its capacity to monitor and analyse such acts of violence but appealed to the international community to work with national and local authorities, human rights defenders, and civil society to provide services to victims of conflict-related sexual violence and increase the capacity of law enforcement authorities to handle such cases.
In relation to the mistreatment of Crimean Tatars, Mr Volkmann emphasised that they continue to be disproportionately affected by police raids and house searches and are prosecuted under extremism-related offences which often fall short of human rights standards. He added that Tatars have been disproportionately affected by conscription efforts in Crimea since its introduction by Russia on the 21st of September 2022. The director highlighted that forcing inhabitants of the occupied territories of Ukraine to serve in the armed and auxiliary forces of the occupying power is prohibited under IHL and may amount to a war crime. He appealed to the international community to continue to apply pressure on Russia to grant the OHCHR unimpeded access to Crimea to assess the situation.
Mr Volkmann concluded by discussing the issue of accountability. He recognised the efforts of Ukraine to investigate and prosecute war crimes. Presently, 6 Russian servicemen have already been sentenced for war crimes covering both the killing of a civilian and the indiscriminate shelling of populated areas. Additionally, 3 members of Russian-affiliated armed groups have been sentenced for the pillage of civil property. The director encouraged the international community to advocate for accountability at all levels. He stated that National accountability should be the first option, but where this is not possible regional and international mechanisms should be used. He added that it is important to equip all branches of government with effective tools to develop and adopt comprehensive national legislation regulating international crimes.
Position of Geneva International Centre for Justice
Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) once again expresses its solidarity with the people of Ukraine and unequivocally condemns Russia’s intervention in the country. Seven months after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the world is continuing to bear witness to egregious human rights violations which challenge the core principles of the UN Charter and test the capacity of IHRL and IHL to ensure the well-being of civilians and hold perpetrators of rights abuses to account. GICJ thanks the UN monitoring team in Ukraine and the Director of the Field Operations and Technical Cooperation Division at the OHCHR for providing a comprehensive and insightful overview of the current human rights situation in Ukraine.
Although HRC member states have routinely condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine, more must be done to ensure that those who have been forced to flee the country are provided with adequate accommodation, food, healthcare, and financial support. As winter approaches it is particularly important that vulnerable people, including the elderly, persons with disabilities, and children, can avail themselves of such support. Instances of conflict-related sexual violence, the use of filtration camps and forced disappearances, and the alleged forcible transfer of children to Russian territory are heinous acts which must continue to be investigated by the OHCHR. GICJ is particularly concerned about the mistreatment of Crimean Tatars who, in recent weeks, have been the victims of mass conscription efforts by the Russian government. We strongly encourage the monitoring team in Ukraine to investigate this issue in greater detail and hope more information will be provided in future oral updates.