UN: Russia has committed ‘wide range’ of war crimes in Ukraine

Erik Møse, chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, addressing a press conference at the UN in Geneva on Thursday, 16 March, 2023. (Keystone/Martial Trezzini)

Russia has committed extensive war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity in Ukraine including systematic killing, torture and deportation of children, a UN-mandated investigation has found.

In their latest report released on Thursday, a commission appointed by the UN Human Rights Council last year found that Russia has committed “numerous violations of international humanitarian law and violations of international human rights law, in addition to a wide range of war crimes.”

Based on more than 500 interviews, satellite images and visits to destruction sites, graves and detention centres, the report by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine detailed a range of war crimes committed by Russian forces spanning attacks on civilian infrastructure, wilful killing and unlawful confinement.

UN investigators found numerous instances of sexual violence and rape committed by Russian authorities, with the majority of incidents taking place in victims’ homes or in detention facilities. Sexual violence “amounting to torture” was committed against men, women and children aged from four to 82, including relatives forced to witness the rape of their loved ones, the use of electric shocks to the genitals and rape at gunpoint.

The report also revealed a “pattern of widespread unlawful confinement” in areas controlled by Russian forces which could amount to crimes against humanity. Ukrainian men, women and children have been held in special detention centres where the commission said they were tortured.

Torture methods at Russian-controlled facilities included electric shocks, detainees being hung from the ceiling with their hands tied and suffocation with plastic bags. A former detainee told investigators that they were beaten “for speaking Ukrainian” and “not remembering the lyrics to the anthem of the Russian Federation.”

“There were elements of planning and availability of resources which indicate that the Russian authorities may have committed torture as crimes against humanity,” Erik Møse, chair of the commission, told a press conference in Geneva.

Confirming earlier concerns within the UN, the commission said Russia had unlawfully transferred and deported children from Ukraine to Russia, depriving them of contact with their families. In September, the UN assistant secretary-general for human rights, Ilze Brands Kehris, told the Security Council in New York that there were credible accusations that Russian forces have sent Ukrainian children to Russia for adoption as part of a large-scale forced relocation and deportation programme.

Earlier this week,  a report released by Human Rights Watch found that thousands of children had been transferred to Russia or occupied territories since the start of the invasion.

The commission’s report also said that repeated attacks on energy infrastructure by Russian forces since October 2022, which left millions without electricity and heating as temperatures dropped below freezing, may amount to crimes against humanity.

The UN report comes as the International Criminal Court (ICC) is expected to seek its first arrest warrants against Russian individuals for war crimes committed in Ukraine, including the abduction of children and the targeting of civilian infrastructure.

Russia denies committing atrocities or targeting civilians in Ukraine.

Møse said investigators have created a list of individuals to hold accountable for rights violations in Ukraine, which he said would be “submitted to the relevant authorities on this issue”.

The report also noted a “small number” of apparent violations by Ukrainian forces, including “likely indiscriminate attacks” and two incidents “which qualify as war crimes, where Russian prisoners of war were shot, wounded and tortured.”

The commission of inquiry was set up during an urgent debate held by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is the most powerful tool used by the global rights body to scrutinise violations in countries around the world.

The three members of the commission are independent human rights experts supported by the council and the UN human rights office. The renewal of their mandate will be decided at the end of the current session of the Human Rights Council, which is due to wrap up the first week of April.