Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
On Ukraine, High Commissioner Türk details severe violations and calls for a just peace
31 March 2023
Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
52nd session of the Human Rights Council
The Russian Federation's invasion of Ukraine has thrown us back to an archaic era.
An era when a neighbouring country’s territory could be attacked and taken, at will, as one’s own. When the identity and history of communities could be denied, and reality rewritten.
The UN Charter was supposed to put an end to such atavistic thinking. But today, a nation is struggling to survive. After 13 months of the Russian Federation's war against Ukraine, severe violations of human rights and international humanitarian law have become shockingly routine. People across the country face massive suffering and loss, deprivation, displacement and destruction. And the continuing worldwide effects of this war – including on countries without any kind of involvement – are profound.
Using the rigorous methodology of my Office, our staff have verified more than 8,400 civilian deaths, and over 14,000 civilians wounded, since 24 February 2022. These figures are just the tip of the iceberg. Most of the casualties resulted from the Russian forces' use of wide-impact explosive weaponry in residential neighbourhoods.
In occupied areas of Ukraine, we have documented numerous summary executions and targeted attacks on civilians since February last year by Russia’s military forces, including affiliated armed groups, such as the Wagner Group. We have also documented 621 cases of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention.
Interviews with 89 civilians released from detention indicated that 91 per cent of them were tortured or ill-treated by Russian personnel, including through various forms of sexual violence. Five of the victims of enforced disappearance were boys, one only 14 years old. All five of these children were tortured or ill-treated.
Of the 109 cases of sexual violence by Russian personnel that were documented, most took place in places of detention. Others, including rape, were perpetrated in areas controlled by Russian forces, mostly against women. Three rape victims were girls under the age of 18.
During the same period, my staff have documented 91 cases of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention by Ukrainian security forces. Of the 73 victims we interviewed, 53 per cent had been tortured or ill-treated. We registered 24 cases of sexual violence by Ukrainian personnel; most of these consisted of threats of sexual violence during initial stages of detention, as well as forced public stripping.
Ukrainian civilians have been transferred to occupied territory or to the Russian Federation. They include children and adults who had been housed in social care institutions, as well as unaccompanied children living in areas of Ukraine occupied or temporarily controlled by Russian forces. These transfers may constitute violations of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits forcible transfers to occupied territory, or deportations to any other country, regardless of their motive.
Two weeks ago, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine told this Council, in sobering detail, about the serious violations of international law it had identified over the last year, including war crimes and even possible crimes against humanity. The Council is also aware that the International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants for alleged war crimes of unlawful deportation and transfer of Ukrainian children from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation.
More than 400 prisoners of war, on both sides, have been interviewed by my staff. Ukraine – to its credit – provided unfettered and confidential access to places of internment. The Russian Federation, however, gave us no access, despite multiple requests, meaning that interviews with Ukrainian prisoners of war could take place only after they had been released. This lack of access also means that numbers of cases ought not to be compared against each other.
More than 90 per cent of Ukrainian prisoners of war that my Office interviewed said that they were tortured or ill-treated, notably in penitentiary facilities, including through so-called – it is an awful phrase – ‘welcoming beatings’ on their arrival, as well as frequent acts of torture throughout detention. We documented the deaths of five prisoners of war from injuries sustained during torture in internment. Food and access to medical care was grossly inadequate. It is essential that international monitors and the staff of our Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine receive unfettered access to all individuals detained by Russian forces.
Almost half of the Russian POWs who were interviewed indicated that they had been tortured or ill-treated. Most of these acts of torture reportedly occurred soon after capture. We did not find a sustained pattern of severe ill-treatment in more permanent places of internment.
We documented the summary execution by Russian personnel of Ukrainian prisoners of war shortly after their capture, with one victim severely mutilated before he was killed. Ukrainian prisoners of war who were captured during battle were also frequently tortured or ill-treated, with at least one such prisoner of war dying within hours of his torture. We also continue to gather and analyse information about the devastating incident in Olenivka, in July 2022, in which at least 50 Ukrainian POWs were killed.
We documented the summary execution by Ukrainian armed forces of Russian prisoners of war, and personnelhors de combat, immediately following their capture. We are aware of ongoing investigations by the Ukrainian authorities, but not, to date, of any prosecutions.
International humanitarian law encapsulates minimum core values that, in the most distressing circumstances, preserve our humanity.
Even amid the bloodshed of war, the rules of international humanitarian law especially protect the lives and dignity of civilians, wounded and sick soldiers, and prisoners of war.
Nobody is above these laws.
Civilians and key civilian infrastructure may not be targeted. Medical and humanitarian personnel must be permitted to work unimpeded. It is forbidden deliberately to kill or wound an adversary who has surrendered or who can no longer take part in fighting. The fundamental human rights of prisoners of war must be respected. The use of weapons or tactics that are likely to cause unnecessary death or excessive suffering is prohibited.
And yet for the woman with disabilities who is unable to leave her house under heavy shelling; for the tens of thousands whose lives and bodies are being torn apart; for prisoners of war who are tortured and deprived of medical care; for children growing up in terror – these laws are violated daily.
I speak for many when I say that I will never forget the photographs of a dying, heavily pregnant woman being carried on a stretcher from the bombed-out ruins of a Mariupol maternity hospital in March 2022.
All these victims have a right to justice – and to a just peace.
Russia's war on Ukraine continues to send shock-waves across the world.
Sharp increases in the prices of food, energy, fertilisers and other essential commodities have heightened tensions and inequalities in every region.
The most severe global cost-of-living crisis in a generation is harming the lives and livelihoods of an estimated 1.6 billion people. It has pushed more than 71 million people into poverty. It threatens the stability of many countries.
It is essential to the lives of tens of millions of people around the world that the Black Sea Grain Initiative continue to provide support to global food security – well beyond the current cut-off point in May 2023.
Thirty-seven years, almost to the day, since the Chernobyl disaster, another Ukrainian nuclear power plant, in Zaporizhzhia, continues to be placed at enormous risk, with potential impact on millions of people within and outside the country.
At a time when humanity faces overwhelming existential challenges, this destructive war is tugging us away from the work of building solutions – the work of ensuring our survival.
This war defies any reason. This madness must end, and peace be found, in line with the United Nations Charter and international law.
My Office, my colleagues, my teams will continue to do our utmost to monitor, document and report the reality that is endured by hundreds of thousands of people on the ground.