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Human cost of brutal Russian invasion

24 February 2023

Hugh Williamson charts human-rights violations in Ukraine — and calls for perpetrators to be held to account


Rescue workers dig through rubble of a theatre in Mariupol which was bombed by Russian aircraft last April

Rescue workers dig through rubble of a theatre in Mariupol which was bombed by Russian aircraft last April

RUSSIA’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, starting on 24 February 2022, has left a terrible path of destruction in its wake. This has brought unimaginable personal suffering, as Russia seeks to erase Ukraine’s sovereignty and to crush Ukrainians’ resilience.

Russia has committed countless war crimes, including extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual violence, and the indiscriminate bombing of civilians, schools, hospitals, and residential areas. It has also repeatedly attacked energy infrastructure, making civilian lives precarious and insecure.

The impact reaches beyond Ukraine’s borders. More than 14 million Ukrainians have been forced to flee their homes — more than half of them leaving the country, and five million coming to Europe.

The war has led to unprecedented repression in Russia, with an all-out drive to eradicate opposition to the war, and to eradicate independent journalism and political dissent.

Internationally, the war has also exposed double standards in governments’ responses to such crises.

As a human-rights organisation, Human Rights Watch focuses on documenting violations of the “laws of war” by parties to the conflict. These are the rules in international law that, among other things, seek to provide protection to civilians from the hazards of armed conflict. While Russia has committed the vast majority of war crimes, there is evidence suggesting that Ukraine has also committed some.

We aim to show the scale of the abuses against civilians, and to put pressure on the warring parties to live up to their legal obligations to protect them during conflicts. We seek accountability for those who have committed war crimes, and justice for the victims and their families. There should be no impunity for these serious crimes.


MORE than 7100 civilians have been killed since the start of the war, and more than 11,600 have been wounded, according to figures verified by the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. It believes that the actual numbers are much higher.

In recent months, Russian drone and missile attacks have disrupted power and water supplies to an estimated 10.7 million homes, affecting roughly half the population of Ukraine.

Such numbers are important, but tell only part of the story. For a fuller account of the suffering and survival, names, for instance, of places little known outside the country a year ago help to convey the meaning.

Bucha is one, now synonymous with some of the worst abuses. Russian troops overran this town 30km north-west of Kyiv in the early days of the conflict. When the troops left on 31 March, it became clear that they had committed numerous summary executions. Local Ukrainian officials reported finding 458 bodies scattered throughout the town.

Mariam DwedarThe Human Rights Watch senior researcher Yulia Gorbunova interviews refugees from Kherson at a railway station in Lviv, Ukraine, on 29 April 2022

In one case, Russian forces summarily executed a man, and threatened to execute four others, on a public square, where 40 other people had also been forced to gather. A teacher who was brought to the square told us: “At one point, they brought in one young man, then four more. The soldiers ordered them (to) take off their boots and jackets. They made them kneel on the side of the road. Russian soldiers pulled their T-shirts from behind and over their heads. They shot one in the back of the head. He fell. Women screamed. The other four men were just kneeling there.”

Mariupol is another name. This coastal city was devastated early in the conflict as Russian forces laid siege to it. Attacks damaged homes, schools, hospitals, shelters, and other civilian infrastructure. Tens of thousands of people were trapped in the city, with little to no access to medicine, food, water, electricity, or communications, and no safe way to escape. Thousands are believed to have died in the bombardment or while sheltering in basements.

Russian soldiers told many civilians fleeing the city that they had to go to Russia or territory that it controlled in Ukraine. Such organised mass transfers constitute a war crime or potential crime against humanity.

The bombing by Russian aircraft of a theatre in Mariupol was especially horrific. Hundreds of civilians, including women and children, had been sheltering inside the building. The attackers ignored the sign that read “DETI” (children), painted on the ground outside. The sign was so big that it could be seen in satellite imagery.

THE huge destruction caused by such indiscriminate bombing and shelling was not limited to Mariupol. Many towns and cities have been attacked. Furthermore, Russia has repeatedly used cluster munitions and antipersonnel landmines: weapons that are so inherently indiscriminate that there are international treaties banning them. Russia has ratified neither. An attack on 8 April on the railway station in Kramatorsk, using a ballistic missile with a cluster-munition warhead, killed 61 people, in one of the single most lethal atrocities of the war.

More than 2700 schools and other educational institutions have been damaged — more than 300 of them beyond repair. There have been 700 attacks on health facilities and their staff and vehicles; and there have been numerous attacks on energy supplies, potentially designed to instil terror among the population, which is also a violation of the laws of war.

One caregiver in Kyiv told us how the long electricity blackouts affected her 75-year-old mother, who has lung cancer and needs power for her oxygen equipment: “If there is no electricity for over two hours, we are trapped, and all I can do is watch my mother struggling to breathe.”

Rape and other types of conflict-related sexual violence have been reported to the UN. Between 24 February and mid-October, its monitors recorded 86 cases, most by Russian forces, including gang rape. In one case that we documented, a Russian soldier repeatedly raped a woman who was sheltering with her family in a school in the Kharkivska region.

Survivors of sexual violence face significant difficulty in getting access to critical services such as sensitive medical care. Stigma and shame deter some survivors from reporting such violence.

At home, Russia has turned the screw on anyone objecting to the war, imposing long prison terms for questioning publicly the Kremlin’s narrative of the conflict, or even for calling the conflict a “war”. More than 15,000 protesters were detained in Moscow and elsewhere in the first month of the war alone. All remaining elements of independent media have been closed down; many journalists, along with activists, have moved abroad.

WE GATHERED evidence that Ukraine had also committed violations, but note that, unlike Russia, the government has been ready to examine our reports. Last month, we urged Kyiv to investigate the apparent use of banned anti-personnel landmines by its military in and around the eastern city of Izium, when Russian forces occupied the area. The mines, scattered in residential areas by long-distance rockets fired apparently by Ukraine, caused many severe injuries.

A 41-year-old woman told us that, early in the morning of 7 August, she went to her outside lavatory. “I didn’t have a flashlight on because it was past curfew. Suddenly, there was an explosion, and I was without a leg,” she said.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said that authorities would study the findings of our report.

The commitments of political will in Europe and elsewhere to support Ukraine have been significant, even extraordinary. But they also underline what could be possible with sufficient political will in other, less high-profile crises, to defend human rights, protect refugees, and bring accountability for war crimes.

The reception that people from Ukraine, mainly women and children, have received from ordinary people in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, has been uplifting. The decision by the European Union to activate the Temporary Protection Directive, enabling Ukrainians to remain in EU member states without visas, was commendable.

Governments in Europe and elsewhere need to take the next step, ending the double standard in relation to refugees. Refugees from Ukraine are welcomed at the Polish border with Ukraine, and yet Afghans, Syrians, and others are beaten and turned away at the Polish border with Belarus. EU states and the UK have opened their doors to refugees from Ukraine, while actively seeking to stop those fleeing other conflicts from reaching Europe.

Many countries, including the UK, have rallied to reinforce efforts to obtain justice concerning war crimes in Ukraine. They have supported domestic investigations and prosecutions in Ukraine, the referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, and the creation of a UN-mandated commission of inquiry.

Judicial officials in several countries have opened investigations under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows domestic authorities to pursue prosecutions, no matter where the crimes are committed, and regardless of the nationality of the suspects or victims.

These are important and timely initiatives. They also show, however, that victims’ access to justice often depends on political calculations. Governments are ready to support Ukraine, but less willing to offer backing for international justice when the cause is less politically popular. This double standard for victims’ access to justice should be addressed urgently.

It is not clear how long the war in Ukraine will last. Accountability processes can take years, even decades. Given the scale of the war crimes in the first year of the conflict alone, it is crucial to build on the steps taken over the past 12 months in the years to come.

Hugh Williamson is director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch. www.hrw.org

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