Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights: Conflict-Related Sexual Violence in Ukraine (14 March 2014 to 31 January 2017) (A/HRC/34/CRP.4)


Human Rights Council
Thirty-fourth session
27 February-24 March 2017
Agenda item 10
Technical assistance and capacity-building

I. Executive Summary

1. This report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) covers the period from 14 March 2014 to 31 January 2017. It applies to the whole territory of Ukraine, including the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, as per United Nations General Assembly resolution 68/262 on the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

2. Following the violence and human rights violations that took place during the largescale protests on Maidan from 21 November 2013 to 22 February 2014, the Government of Ukraine invited OHCHR to monitor the human rights situation in the country, and to provide regular public reports on the human rights situation and emerging concerns and risks.1 On 14 March 2014, OHCHR deployed the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU). On 16 March 2014, an unrecognised referendum was held in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, which was followed by the occupation2 of Crimea by the Russian Federation. From April 2014, HRMMU observed signs of the rapid deterioration of the security situation in east and south-east regions of Ukraine. Armed groups unlawfully seized public buildings, police and security facilities in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, in a well-organised and coordinated fashion. On 14 April 2014, the Government launched a security operation to re-establish control over those territories. In May 2014, armed groups self-proclaimed a “people’s republic” in both regions. Since then, an armed conflict has been ongoing in certain districts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. It was fuelled by the inflow of foreign fighters and weapons, including from the Russian Federation.

3. Since the deployment of HRMMU, OHCHR has gathered substantial information related to human rights violations and abuses, notably in the eastern part of the country affected by the ongoing armed conflict, as well as in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.

4. OHCHR has been paying particular attention to the issue of conflict-related sexual violence since the beginning of the armed conflict in April 2014. OHCHR observed that allegations of sexual violence perpetrated by all parties involved in hostilities are entrenched in the narratives of people living along the contact line. While often unverified, such allegations were widely disseminated by media on both sides of the contact line, contributing to deepening the mistrust, divide and animosity among local communities.

5. Cases of sexual violence are usually under-reported, including because of a general unease about this issue, as well as the stigma and trauma associated with it. OHCHR was not able to verify all allegations of conflict-related sexual violence brought to its attention, particularly in territory controlled by armed groups. This was due to limited access to some places for security reasons, rare access to conflict-related detainees in these areas, and the reluctance of people to talk for fear of reprisals. With no physical access to the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, OHCHR has limited information about conflict-related sexual violence there. Lack of direct contact with the survivors4 makes it less likely for them to disclose details that could enable OHCHR to draw conclusions about the use of sexual violence. Lack of access to persons deprived of their liberty prevents any independent oversight, and makes it impossible to assess the occurrence and extent of acts of torture and sexual violence.

6. The interchangeable use of terms such as conflict-related sexual violence, genderbased violence and domestic violence by the Government of Ukraine, media, service providers and those documenting human rights violations contributes to confusion and makes it even more complex to determine the scale and scope of the problem.

7. This report presents only a sample of 31 emblematic cases that illustrate broad patterns and trends of conflict-related sexual violence documented by OHCHR. The number of cases in this report may not reflect the real scale of violations or abuses, but is rather indicative of OHCHR access to survivors and witnesses on each side of the contact line.

8. Based on the cases documented by OHCHR from 14 March 2014 to 31 January 2017, there are no grounds to believe that sexual violence has been used for strategic or tactical ends by Government forces or the armed groups in the eastern regions of Ukraine, or by the Russian Federation in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. Regardless of its scale, sexual violence, particularly in the context of a conflict, is a gross violation of physical integrity, and it may, under certain conditions, amount to torture or to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Some of the documented cases, when linked to the armed conflict, could amount to war crimes.

9. The majority of cases of conflict-related sexual violence documented by OHCHR in Ukraine occurred in the context of the deprivation of liberty by Government forces or armed groups. In these cases, both men and women were subjected to sexual violence. Beatings and electrocution in the genital area, rape, threats of rape, and forced nudity were used as a method of torture and ill-treatment to punish, humiliate, or extract confessions. Furthermore, to increase the pressure, the perpetrators threatened to also detain or abduct, rape, injure or kill relatives of the victims, especially their children. In the territory controlled by armed groups sexual violence was also used to compel individuals deprived of liberty to relinquish property or perform other actions demanded by the perpetrators, as an explicit condition for their safety and release. The majority of these incidents date back to 2014-2015; nonetheless OHCHR continues to receive testimonies indicating that such practice still occurs on both sides of the contact line and in Crimea.

10. While deprivation of liberty posed the highest risk of sexual violence to an individual,
OHCHR also identified cases of sexual abuse against civilians, mainly women, at the entryexit checkpoints along the transport corridors across the contact line run by the Government forces, as well as the checkpoints run by armed groups.

11. The presence of Ukrainian armed forces and armed groups in populated areas also increases the risk of sexual violence against civilians. The deterioration of the economic situation, particularly in conflict-affected regions, combined with the destruction of community ties caused by the conflict and displacement, have compelled some people to use harmful survival strategies and coping mechanisms that may increase the risk of sexual violence and trafficking.

12. Acts of sexual violence incur State responsibility, the responsibility of all parties to the conflict, as well as individual criminal liability. International standards require States to exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate and prosecute sexual violence perpetrated by either State or non-State actors. States are also required to ensure effective remedies to survivors, including access to justice and comprehensive support services.

13. Many cases of conflict-related sexual violence documented by OHCHR in Ukraine were associated with other human rights violations and abuses, such as unlawful killings, abduction or incommunicado detention of the victims, and destruction or looting of their property, which complicates documentation and investigation. The resulting charges rarely reflect the severity of the conduct, or the character of the crimes and their impact on victims, limiting the delivery of justice and access to an effective remedy.

14. OHCHR has noted prevailing impunity for human rights violations and abuses committed in the context of the conflict in Ukraine, not least with regard to sexual violence. This is partly due to the fact that the conflict is ongoing and that a part of Ukraine’s territory remains under the control of armed groups, with no oversight by any State authority. The impunity also reflects a systemic decades-old accountability challenge that has never been fully addressed and continues to undermine public trust in the ability of institutions to hold perpetrators of crimes to account.

15. In addition, national legislation and legal practice regarding the prosecution of sexual violence is limited and is not fully in line with international standards and practice. Due to a number of gaps in legislation and a lack of capacity, acts of sexual violence are often recorded by law enforcement as other crimes such as bodily injury. Lawyers, police officers, prosecutors and judges lack knowledge of how to document, investigate and consider cases of conflict-related sexual violence, as well as with regards to allegations of ill-treatment and torture. Consequently, victims of sexual violence are often confronted with inaction from State authorities or armed groups who exercise control over certain areas.

16. Armed groups in the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’6 and the selfproclaimed ‘Luhansk people’s republic’7 have an obligation to prevent and address sexual violence committed by their members. OHCHR is aware of some cases in which armed groups ‘investigated’ and addressed cases of sexual violence. They do not appear to provide effective remedy for the victims, as they were not taken by an independent and impartial body. Furthermore in some cases, such ‘processes’ have placed blame on the survivors, especially women. These also included discriminatory remarks towards women, reinforcing negative gender stereotypes.

17. Another problematic aspect is the lack of support available for victims. Overall, professionals in medical and social State institutions lack the specific knowledge and skills required to deal with survivors of torture and conflict-related sexual violence. Consequently, services for these individuals are provided by civil society organizations through donorfunded programmes. In addition, while high quality services are provided in urban centres, mostly in Kyiv. There is little or no assistance available in smaller towns and rural areas, which is especially critical for the life-saving post-exposure prophylaxis, which has to be taken within 72 hours.

18. The conflict has had a negative impact on the provision of services in territory controlled by armed groups, limiting access of survivors to needed services. While most medical and social institutions have continued to work, the quality of services has deteriorated due to the lack of medical professionals, shortages of necessary specialized equipment and medication. Survivors of conflict-related sexual violence living in territory controlled by armed groups are further affected by restrictions imposed by members of the armed groups, which severely limits civil society and humanitarian actors’ ability to carry out their programmes, particularly those linked to protection and psycho-social support.

19. OHCHR welcomes the adoption by the Government of Ukraine of the National Human Rights Strategy and its Actions Plan and of the National Action Plan on “Women, Peace. Security”,8 which are to address some of the challenges identified in this report. While, the overall progress in their implementation so far has been limited, OHCHR notes the progress made by the Ministry of Defence in the implementation of the National Action Plan “Women. Peace. Security”.

20. It is critical to revise national legislation and ensure a robust law enforcement and an independent judiciary, willing and able to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity, gross human rights violations and abuses, including sexual violence, in domestic courts. The constitutional amendments adopted in June 2016 provide an opportunity to reform the judiciary and advance the rule of law. In addition, proper documentation and investigation of all allegations of sexual violence and other human rights violations, guaranteeing rehabilitation services to survivors, and bringing perpetrators to justice are important elements of providing an effective remedy to victims, upholding international obligations, building a culture of accountability and rule of law and fostering sustainable peace.

21. Since 2015, OHCHR bolstered its technical cooperation activities, assisting the Government of Ukraine in operationalizing and fulfilling its obligations toward the promotion and protection of human rights, especially in addressing torture. This assistance is extended to the Government directly and by supporting partners, particularly civil society organizations. Through the United Nations Voluntary Fund for the Victims of Torture, OHCHR supports three civil society organisations providing services to victims of torture, including sexual violence. OHCHR has also been providing small grants to the other three NGOs, which document human rights violations and provide psycho-social and medical support to the survivors of torture. In close cooperation with the Ombudsperson’s Office, OHCHR promotes the implementation of the Istanbul Protocol.