UN body investigating possible war crimes wraps up first visit to Ukraine

Exhumation of bodies from the mass grave near a church in Bucha, 8 April 2022. (Credit: National Police of Ukraine/Wikipedia)

United Nations experts appointed to investigate human rights violations in Ukraine on Wednesday said that information they have gathered so far “may support claims” of war crimes and crimes against humanity, as they wrapped up their first visit to the country. 

Erik Møse of Norway, chair of the independent UN commission of inquiry, said he and his two colleagues had met with members of the Ukrainian parliament, of several ministries, NGOs, and with the country’s prosecutor general during their 10-day visit.

The former European Court of Human Rights judge said they visited Bucha, Irpin, Kharkiv and Sumy, where they met with local authorities as well as civil society organisations, after Human Rights Council members, at a special session in May, requested they look into possible war crimes by Russian troops that temporarily occupied the area.

“At this stage we are not in a position to make any factual findings or pronounce ourselves on issues of the legal determination of events,” Møse, speaking at the hybrid press conference in Kyiv, said.

“However, subject to further confirmation, the information received and the visited sites of destruction may support claims that serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, perhaps reaching war crimes and crimes against humanity, have been committed in the areas.”

The panel also reached out to Russian authorities as part of their investigation but has yet to have a response. It will continue efforts to make contact, Mose said.

Russia was suspended from the Human Rights Council in April over alleged civilian killings in the Kyiv region. It has denied all accusations of human rights violations, including allegations of war crimes. The commission’s probe also includes possible violations committed by Ukrainian forces.

Pablo de Greiff of Colombia, a member of the commission of inquiry, said the panel will “continue with the process of collecting evidence” and plans to visit other parts of Ukraine before delivering its update to the Council in September.

Parallel war crimes probes in Ukraine

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, several NGOs and other international groups have been working to document human rights abuses and evidence of mass atrocities, including war crimes, in Ukraine as allegations of murder, rape, torture and other violent acts continue to emerge.

The International Criminal Court and several national prosecutors have also opened criminal investigations and launched special evidence-gathering units. The UN Human Rights Council set up its independent commission of inquiry after members greenlighted a resolution in March.

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De Greiff said that with many parallel investigations taking place, there was a risk of their work overlapping and “of retraumatization of witnesses if they are heard by too many investigators”. The commission is cooperating with other investigative bodies, in particular with the ICC, to avoid this from happening, he said.

“The mandate of all these institutions are quite different and that reduces to some extent, the risk that there will be large discrepancies,” De Greiff noted, adding their mandate was wider and covered many fields of human rights law, and not just criminal responsibility.

Investigating forced transfer of children

Jasminka Dzumhur of Bosnia and Herzegovina, also a member of the commission, told journalists that further investigation was needed into allegations that children in Ukraine are being forcibly sent to Russia.

In an interview with Reuters earlier this month, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, said her office was examining allegations of forcible deportation, although she did not disclose the number of estimated victims.

Ukraine’s human rights ombudswoman Lyudmyla Denisova said in May that Russia had relocated more than 210,000 children since its invasion.

Read also: Can war in Ukraine be an opportunity for children’s justice?

Dzumhur said testimonies heard by the commission during its visit, as well as other evidence, suggested that “a significant number of children have disappeared” in areas occupied by Russia, particularly children being housed in institutions.

However, without clear data on missing persons or access to occupied territories, she said this evidence was very difficult to confirm.  “Therefore, it’s extremely important to establish communication with Russian Federation authorities.”