Millions of people in ‘potentially mortal danger’, UN rights chief warns during urgent debate on Ukraine

Michelle Bachelet delivers her opening speech at the urgent debate on Ukraine on Thursday 3 March (Credit: UNTV)

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet warned on Thursday that tens of millions of Ukrainians are “in potentially mortal danger” as fighting intensifies in major ports and cities across the country, leaving hundreds dead and forcing thousands to seek refuge from explosions.

“I am deeply concerned that the current escalation of military operations will further heighten the harm they face,” Bachelet told the Human Rights Council at the opening of an urgent debate on Ukraine, calling for an immediate stop to the attacks.

The 47-member council is convening to consider whether to set up an independent commission of inquiry to look into alleged human rights violations and breaches of international humanitarian law by Russia.

The draft resolution, prepared by Ukraine and co-sponsored by 37 UN member states, also calls for the immediate cessations of hostilities and the withdrawal of Russia’s troops from the country.

Russia was the first member state to take the floor, accusing EU countries and the US of ignoring the sufferings of people of Donetsk and Luhansk since the “coup” in 2014 and of choosing instead to “pander to the criminal regime in Kyiv”.

“It’s all very simple.  The peace and prosperity of Ukraine are not in your interests.  The lives of ordinary Ukrainians are of no interest to you. You don’t need a settlement of the situation in Ukraine. The puppet regime of Zelensky is of interest to you only as a means of pressure and as a trump card in your confrontation with Russia. Hence, we do not see any added value for today’s debate,” Russian ambassador Gennady Gatilov, told the council.

Speaking via a recorded message in Ukraine, Emine Dzhaparova, the country’s first deputy minister of foreign affairs, said recent events “clearly point to the fact that the Russian troops fighting in Ukraine carry out the most blatant violations and abuses of human rights” and said the council has “a leading role to play” in holding Russia to account.

Dozens of member states during the session voiced their support for a resolution to establish a commission of inquiry and echoed condemnations that have resounded over the past week at the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly, where 141 out of 193 member states on Wednesday voted in favour of a resolution deploring Russia’s actions.

“That was an unprecedented vote and it shows you that Russia is alone,” France’s ambassador Jérôme Bonnafont, said.  “The Council cannot stand silent in the face of this unjustifiable intervention. This has disastrous consequences for human rights and for the humanitarian situation in the country.”

Other long-term allies, however, that have opposed or abstained from recent UN votes, voiced their objection to the resolution.

Chinese Ambassador Chen Xu said that “China opposed using human rights issues as a pretext to exert pressure on other countries”.

“Therefore, we oppose establishing a commission of inquiry on Ukraine. We don’t support any act that may stimulate conflict.”

The urgent debate will continue on Friday, when a vote will be held on whether to adopt the resolution.

Ukraine and Russia plan third round of talks

On Thursday afternoon, Russia and Ukraine held a second round of talks aimed at stopping the escalating war. Both sides have reportedly reached an understanding on a joint provision of humanitarian corridors for evacuating civilians and agreed to hold a third round of negotiations.

Read also: WHO appeals for humanitarian corridor to Ukraine

At least 227 civilians have been killed and 525 have been injured since 24 February, according to latest UN figures, mainly due to the use of heavy artillery in densely populated areas with “concerning reports” of cluster munitions striking civilian targets.

While more than one million people are now reported by the UN Refugee Agency to have fled to the country, thousands of those that remain are being forced to spend days and nights in underground shelters to escape explosions.

Hospitals, schools, and homes have been hit by Russia’s relentless bombardment, and essential infrastructure has been heavily damaged – cutting off critical supplies and services, including electricity, water and access to healthcare.

“Many people in situations of vulnerability are separated from families and effectively trapped,” Bachelet said. 

“I echo the powerful call by the General Assembly [on Wednesday] for an immediate resolution of the conflict through peaceful means.”