One year since Russia’s invasion, Ukrainians seek justice for war crimes

A bird flies over new graves at the municipal cemetery in Bucha, Ukraine, April 2022. (Keystone/EPA/Oleg Petrasyuk)

The Center for Civil Liberties was jointly awarded the Nobel peace prize in October for its work documenting war crimes in Ukraine. As the world prepares to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion on February 24, the NGO's executive director, Oleksandra Romantsova, says it will not stop seeking justice.

After Russian-backed forces invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014, the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL) was the first human rights group to send teams to Crimea and the Donbas to investigate the disappearance of Kremlin critics, journalists and activists, monitor political prisoners held in occupied territories and document potential war crimes.

Founded in 2007, the organisation rose to prominence in 2013 documenting abuses and providing support to protesters during the violent crackdown on the Euromaidan protests, bringing together thousands of people to provide legal and other assistance under its Euromaidan SOS initiative.

For nearly a decade, the NGO has been collecting stories from people who survived captivity, families of those who have disappeared, and civilians who witnessed atrocities during the period. Gathering evidence of such crimes in Crimea was Oleksandra Romantsova’s first job after she joined CCL’s staff in 2014. Now the NGO’s executive director, she told Geneva Solutions that the accounts she heard during her work in the field left her traumatised.

After Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24 last year, the organisation has stepped up its efforts to document potential war crimes against Ukrainian civilians. Under its Euromaidan SOS project, which was restarted this year, hundreds of volunteers have travelled across the Kyiv region to gather testimonies from victims of rights violations that could amount to war crimes.

This work earned CCL the Nobel peace prize in October 2022, which it was jointly awarded with Memorial, a Russian human rights group outlawed by the Kremlin, and activist Ales Bialiatski, one of Belarus’ most prominent human rights defenders, currently being held in prison and facing a 12-year sentence.

“The aim is to collect possible evidence from people, victims or witnesses who see something,” Romantsova explained over a video call from the NGO’s headquarters in Kyiv. “It’s really important to be on the ground and speak with people. Usually you might have some information in open sources about one case in one village, but when you actually go to find that person you find a lot more cases.”

Horrors of war

Staff from CCL were among the first to visit towns and villages north-west of Kyiv after Russia abandoned its attempt to take control of the city in March last year. As Russian troops pulled back from the region, the extent of the horrors they had inflicted on Ukrainian civilians during the roughly month-long occupation became shockingly apparent.

In cities and towns such as Bucha, Irpin and Borodyanka, Ukrainian investigators and documenters found evidence of a litany of war crimes, including dozens of mass graves where the bodies of civilians had been buried after they were tortured and killed.

“We were in Bucha three days after it was released,” said Romantsova, her voice heavy with emotion. “So we saw it from the beginning.”

Since the full-scale invasion 12 months ago, Romantsova said CCL staff and volunteers have gathered evidence of “every kind of war crime except the use of child soldiers” in the areas they have visited.

“There has been shelling of hospitals, shelling of churches, shelling of museums, striking schools,” she said. “Everywhere they go, Russian forces systematically use kindergartens and schools as a base for their forces, which is a war crime. Even if people use the basement as a bomb shelter, they don't let them leave. They use them like human shields.”

The United Nations concluded in September that Russia has committed war crimes in Ukraine, including bombing civilian areas, executions, torture and sexual violence. A team of UN investigators began work in the country in May last year, collecting accounts of crimes perpetrated against civilians during the Russian occupation.

“It’s everything,” continued Romantsova. “The death penalty, sexual crimes, mass graves where people have been tied up and shot in the head. We’ve seen cases where people have been shot for having a phone in their hand, because we think maybe the Russians are afraid that they are giving the Ukrainian military information through the phone.”

Romantsova said people have generally been open to speaking about what has happened, willing to share their most horrific experiences with CCL documenters in the hope of holding the perpetrators accountable. Victims of sexual crimes are an exception, however. “When it’s sexual violence, there’s silence. People will not speak about it,” she said. “We think the numbers of those kinds of war crimes will only become clear later on, when people feel more secure coming forward.”

Read also: Seeking justice for survivors of sexual violence in Ukraine

Accounts of sexual violence committed by Russian soldiers against civilians in occupied territories have been gradually emerging since the start of the full-scale invasion. A total of 154 cases of conflict-related sexual violence have been officially identified so far, although UN experts believe the actual figures are much higher. The UN’s investigation into war crimes in Ukraine said the victims ranged from four to 82 years old.

CCL has also been mapping accounts of disappearances of human rights defenders, journalists, activists and local government representatives since the 2014 conflict began. The 2022 invasion has added new urgency to this aspect of their work. The UN has documented hundreds of cases of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention in territories occupied by Russian forces since February last year.

Romantsova said CCL was monitoring cases of political prisoners, prisoners of war and civilians who they believe have been forcibly moved to Russia. “Huge numbers of people have been kidnapped, arrested and brought to Russia either through Belarus or Crimea,” she said. “Why exactly they [the Russian Federation] are collecting them we don’t know. They have said they are prisoners of war, but it’s not true – they are not military, they are just civilians.”

Romantsova admits that the work takes a toll on her and her staff. Not only are they living through the daily reality of war in their country, subject to airstrikes on Kyiv and anxiously awaiting news from family and friends around the country, but it’s their job to listen to the most appalling violations their fellow citizens have experienced.

“It’s hard emotionally,” she admits. “It’s important to have psychological support for our volunteers and staff because it’s a lot of hard stories to hear.”

“These war crimes are part of our day-to-day life, just like not knowing whether we can leave home or whether there will be an air strike. I have friends whose homes were destroyed by rockets,” she continued. “But what you see on a field mission is much worse, and it’s much more difficult to understand and explain how something like that can happen.”

Pursuing justice

Earlier this month, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, whose office is responsible for formally investigating war crimes in the country, said regional authorities have registered more than 65,000 such crimes committed by Russia since Moscow’s invasion in February last year.

CCL works closely with the body and shares the information its volunteers gather, which can be used as evidence of war crimes, in the hope of one day “finding some justice for the victims”, said Romantsova.

Soon after the full-scale invasion, the CCL established the Tribunal for Putin database, through which over 40 organisations across all regions of Ukraine document probable war crimes. Organisations also use the database to prepare legal cases to send to the International Criminal Court in the Hague and other international institutions.

“We understand that in the end the court will decide whether it was a war crime or not, but we are trying to find potential war crimes and separate them from other things that are happening during the war,” said Romantsova.

To date, the database has documented over 33,000 violations, although the NGOs behind the initiative acknowledge the true number of war crimes is likely to be significantly higher.

For victims of war crimes in Ukraine, the road to justice is likely to be long and arduous. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is currently investigating war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in the country going back as far as 2013, before Russia’s annexation of Crimea. However, the ICC’s powers only extend to member states and states that have agreed to its jurisdiction, which includes Ukraine but not Russia. This means Russia would be unlikely to extradite any suspects.

The CCL is one of many organisations that are pushing for a new international war crimes tribunal to focus on the Russian invasion and hold Vladimir Putin to account, along with other high-ranking officials. Russia has strongly opposed such a move, and would undoubtedly veto any proposal if it was brought to the UN Security Council.

But this hasn’t stopped Ukraine’s courts mounting their own investigations. By the end of last year, the prosecutor general had already charged hundreds of suspected war criminals. One Russian soldier, a 21-year-old tank driver, has already been jailed for life for shooting an unarmed civilian. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied it has committed war crimes in Ukraine or deliberately targeted civilians.

Eyes on Ukraine

When she received the call from the Norwegian Nobel prize committee telling her the organisation had been awarded the peace prize, Romantsova said it came as a “huge surprise”. She said the award was a welcome moment of international recognition for the work of the CCL, shining a light on the atrocities that are being suffered by the Ukrainian people every day.

“It’s given us the possibility to speak more and speak louder,” she said. “It’s given us a global platform and brought us to the attention of the people who are actually making decisions. Our message – that we need to get justice for victims of war crimes – hasn’t changed. But now, more people are listening to us.”

As the war in Ukraine enters its second year, Romantsova said the world’s attention must not move on from her country. She said Ukrainians have a chance to “change something globally” by taking on Russia and holding it to account for the violations committed in Ukraine and elsewhere.

“Everything that’s happening now in Ukraine is possible because before, when it happened in Syria, Mali, Chechnya, Georgia and Moldova, nobody reacted,” she said. “So now Ukrainians feel not only responsible for ourselves, but we feel the responsibility for all other countries.”