Ukraine

Ukraine: Update to the Human Rights Council Special Session - Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

DELIVERED BY Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
AT 34th special session of the Human Rights Council on the deteriorating human rights situation in Ukraine stemming from the Russian aggression

Distinguished President,
Excellencies,
Colleagues and Friends,
Greetings from Vienna,

Thank you for this opportunity to update the Human Rights Council on the human rights situation in Ukraine. This follows my last oral update to the Council on 30 March, and my briefing to the United Nations Security Council on 5 May.

My Office continues to verify allegations of violations of international human rights law and of international humanitarian law, many of which may amount to war crimes. Since the fourth day of the Russian Federation’s armed attack in Ukraine, my Office has been publishing daily updates on civilian casualties. We have consistently stressed that actual figures are likely considerably higher, as our figures only refer to those cases that we have been able to verify. In areas of intense hostilities – notably, Mariupol – it has been difficult for my staff to gain access and obtain and corroborate information.

The pattern of causes of civilian casualties that my Office has been recording in Ukraine has not significantly changed since the last time I briefed this body. The vast majority continue to be caused by the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, such as shelling from heavy artillery, including multiple launch rocket systems, and missile and air strikes. According to our information, while such incidents can be attributed to both parties to the conflict, most of these casualties appear attributable to the Russian armed forces and affiliated armed groups.

Excellencies,

Last week, my Monitoring Mission in Ukraine visited 14 towns and villages in the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions which, until the end of March, were controlled by Russian armed forces. My team heard first-hand accounts of relatives, neighbours and friends being killed, injured, detained and disappeared. This was the second OHCHR visit to these regions, and it pains me to imagine how many visits will be needed to document only a fraction of the egregious human rights violations that have occurred there.

To date, over 1,000 civilian bodies have been recovered in the Kyiv region alone. Some of these people were killed in hostilities, others appear to have been summarily executed. Others still have died because of stress to their health caused by hostilities and the lack of medical aid. They have spent weeks in basements being threatened by Russian soldiers with abuse or death if they tried to leave, thereby placing these individuals at severe risk from the hostilities. In the village of Yahidne in Chernihiv region, 360 residents, including 74 children and 5 persons with disabilities, were forced by Russian armed forces to stay for 28 days in the basement of a school that they were using as their base. The basement was extremely overcrowded. People had to sit for days without an opportunity to lie down. There were no toilet facilities, water or ventilation. 10 older people died.

The scale of unlawful killings, including indicia of summary executions in areas to the north of Kyiv is shocking. While we have information about 300 such killings, the figures will continue to increase as new evidence becomes available. These killings of civilians often appeared to be intentional, carried out by snipers and soldiers. Civilians were killed when crossing the road or leaving their shelters to seek food and water. Others were killed as they fled in their vehicles. Unarmed local men were killed because Russian soldiers suspected them of supporting Ukrainian forces or otherwise being a potential threat, and some were tortured before being killed. In the village of Katiuzhanka, Kyiv region, a young couple, their 14-year old daughter and a grandfather were shot by Russian soldiers while trying to drive to their house. The parents were killed, while the child received two gunshot wounds.

To date we have recorded destruction or damage to hundreds of educational and medical facilities, and tens of thousands civilian houses, as a result of the hostilities. Throughout the country, at least 50 Christian, Jewish and Muslim places of worship of different denominations have been damaged; more than half of these have been severely damaged and cannot be used.

Excellencies,

The city of Mariupol and its residents have suffered unimaginable horrors since the Russian Federation’s armed attack started. I am shocked at the scale of the destruction, and the numerous violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law that have reportedly been committed in the city, including attacks against civilians and civilian objects. A once flourishing city lies in ruins. We estimate the civilian death toll in Mariupol to lie in the thousands, while only with time will the true scale of atrocities, casualties and damage become clear. Active hostilities are now focused on the Azovstal industrial area, with residential areas of the city now largely occupied by the Russian armed forces and affiliated armed groups. This raises human rights concerns of a different nature than those arising in areas of active hostilities.

I am relieved that over 500 civilians, including children and older persons, have now been successfully evacuated from the Azovstal steel plant and other areas following the joint efforts of the ICRC and UN. Combatants that are hors de combat by sickness or injury must also be allowed to be evacuated to receive the medical care required by their condition.

Excellencies,

My office is looking into allegations of sexual violence and has verified a dozen cases across the country. I am concerned by allegations of sexual violence that have emerged from areas in the Kyiv region that were formerly under the control of Russian armed forces. There were instances of rape and murder of victims or their relatives. Survivors are often unwilling to be interviewed because of fear and stigma. Women and girls are the most frequently cited victims; however, reports of men and boys being affected are starting to emerge.

  • The Mission also spoke to people who are searching for their relatives and friends. It has documented some cases of Russian armed forces having detained civilians, mostly young men, and then transferred them to Belarus and then Russia, where they have been held in pre-trial detention centres. Overall, since 24 February, we have documented 204 cases of enforced disappearance (169 men, 34 women, 1 boy), the overwhelming majority of them by Russian armed forces and affiliated armed groups. Among them are public officials, journalists, civil society activists, retired servicemen of the armed forces as well as other civilians. According to information available to us, 38 of them have been released and returned home, and five (four men and one woman) were found dead. The real number of enforced disappearances is again likely higher.

  • We have also documented ten cases of possible enforced disappearances of people considered to be pro-Russian in Government controlled territory which appear to have been committed by Ukrainian law enforcement officials. Seven of those victims have since been reportedly released. My Office is also following cases of conflict-related detainees in Government-controlled areas which raise fair trial concerns. Excellencies,

The only way to bring a stop to further violations is to end the hostilities. That must remain the primary objective. However, while hostilities continue and for as long as they last, all parties must give clear instructions to their combatants to protect civilians and persons hors de combat, as well as to distinguish between civilian and military objects.

Those in command of armed forces must make it clear to their members that anyone found to have been involved in such violations will be prosecuted and held accountable.

I urge both parties to the conflict to fully respect their obligations under international human rights law and international humanitarian law, including to investigate all allegations of violations, and above all to commit to protecting every civilian woman, man and child and those hors de combat.

Our common humanity demands no less.

Thank you.