Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
49th session of the Human Rights Council
Urgent debate on the situation of human rights in Ukraine stemming from the Russian aggression
Colleagues and Friends,
One week ago, the Russian Federation's military attack on Ukraine opened a new and dangerous chapter in world history.
The Secretary-General has termed this "the most serious global peace and security crisis in recent years"; he added, "a country has been thrown into chaos; a region has been upended; and the reverberations are being felt around the world."
The attack that began on 24 February is generating massive impact on the human rights of millions of people across Ukraine. Elevated threat levels for nuclear weapons underline the gravity of the risks to all of humanity.
Military operations are escalating further as we speak, with military strikes on and near large cities, including Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Kherson, Lysychansk, Sievierodonetsk, Sumy, Mariupol and Zhytomyr, and the capital, Kyiv. The town of Volnovakha in Donetsk region has been almost completely destroyed by shelling, and its remaining residents have been hiding in basements.
By Tuesday night, my Office had recorded and confirmed 752 civilian casualties, including 227 killed – 15 of them children. At least 525 have been injured, including 28 children. I will disaggregate these figures in terms of the regions affected: 323 casualties (65 killed and 258 injured) were recorded in Donetsk and Luhansk regions. 429 casualties (162 killed and 267 injured) were recorded in other regions of Ukraine – the city of Kyiv, and Cherkasy, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Kherson, Kyiv, Odesa, Sumy, Zaporizhzhia, and Zhytomyr regions.
I must emphasize that the real figures will be far higher, since numerous other casualties are pending confirmation, and information from some areas engaged in intense hostilities has been delayed. A member of the OSCE Monitoring Unit in Ukraine was killed last night in Kharkiv while getting supplies for her family. We grieve all the deaths that have occurred.
Most civilian casualties were caused by the use of heavy artillery, multi-launch rocket systems and air strikes in populated areas, with concerning reports of use of cluster munitions striking civilian targets. Massive damage to residential buildings has been inflicted. The use of weapons with wide area effects in populated urban areas risks being inherently indiscriminate, and I call for the immediate cessation of such force.
There has also been substantial damage to a significant number of civilian objects, including a hospital, schools and kindergartens. Essential infrastructure has been heavily damaged – cutting off critical supplies and services, including electricity, water and access to healthcare. On 26 February, Russian troops near Kherson reportedly fired on an ambulance that was transporting seriously wounded victims; the driver was killed and one paramedic was injured.
Over two million people have been forced to flee their homes. One million, according to UNHCR estimates, are internally displaced. A further 1,040,000 refugees have sought safety in neighbouring countries in the past seven days – often after travelling for days by bicycle or on foot, in freezing conditions. UNHCR has estimated that up to four million people could leave the country in the coming weeks if the conflict continues.
I commend the welcome that Ukrainians leaving the country have received. This welcome must be extended to all those fleeing conflict, regardless of their citizenship, ethnicity, migration or other status. There have been disturbing indications of discrimination against African and Asian nationals while fleeing, and the Office will be watching this situation attentively.
Tens of millions of people remain in the country, in potentially mortal danger. I am deeply concerned that the current escalation of military operations will further heighten the harm they face. Thousands of people, including older people, pregnant women, as well as children and people with disabilities, are being forced to gather in underground shelters and subway stations to escape explosions. Many people in situations of vulnerability are separated from families and effectively trapped. My staff in Ukraine have been contacted by several groups who fear persecution if Russian troops advance, including members of the Crimean Tatar community in mainland Ukraine, as well as prominent human rights defenders and journalists.
We are here to demonstrate and uphold our commitment to multilateralism and human rights. I echo the powerful call by the General Assembly yesterday for an immediate resolution of the conflict through peaceful means.
States must abide by international law and the core principles that protect human life and human dignity.
It is imperative that full access for the delivery of humanitarian assistance to civilians across the entire country be enabled.
I also strongly urge the full protection of civilians, as well as captured soldiers, as required under international humanitarian law.
It is a reality that, in armed conflict, there are incidents that violate the binding norms of international armed conflict. It is in all States’ interest to ensure that those standards are met, and that there is due accountability where they are not.
I note that, at the international level, the International Court of Justice has been formally seized of proceedings connected to the conflict, and will begin hearings Monday on a request for provisional measures. In addition, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has announced his decision to immediately proceed with active investigations on the situation in Ukraine, following referrals by a broad number of States. And this Council has before it an important proposal, building on established practice, to widen accountability avenues through an independent international commission of inquiry.
The Office has for eight years extensively and consistently monitored the human rights situation in Ukraine with particular focus on the regions of the Donbas engaged in conflict, as well as the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, which have been occupied by the Russian Federation since 2014. The 40 reports the Office has published are publicly accessible, and document violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by multiple actors over that period.
Our human rights monitors will continue to operate across the country to the full extent of their capacity. I believe this crisis demonstrates the vital importance of our objective monitoring and reporting in Ukraine – and in many other countries – and I take this opportunity to publicly thank the staff of the Office, particularly our colleagues in the field, for their dedication.
As the Secretary-General has said, the UN Charter has always "stood firm on the side of peace, security, development, justice, international law and human rights – and time after time, when the international community has rallied together in solidarity, those values have prevailed."
It is vital that they prevail today, in Ukraine – and elsewhere.
My thoughts are with all people who suffer unbearable fear, pain and deprivation because of the senseless destruction of warfare.
Thank you, Mr President.