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Russia's Ukraine violations 'shockingly routine'

March 31, 2023

UN Human Rights chief Volker Turk has said the number of civilian casualties in Russia's invasion of Ukraine far outstrips official figures.

Forensics carry body bags in a forest near Izyum
Horrific atrocities emerged as areas like Bucha and Izyum were liberated from Russian troopsImage: Sergey Bobok/AFP/Getty Images

The UN Commissioner for Human Rights on Friday said his office had documented numerous summary executions and targeted attacks on civilians by Russia's military forces since February 2022.

Speaking a year after shocking Russian atrocities were revealed in the Ukrainian town of Bucha, Volker Turk said serious human rights abuses had become commonplace.

What the UN rights chief said

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has verified that more than 8,400 civilians with some 14,000 civilians wounded since the invasion on February 24 last year.

"These figures are just the tip of the iceberg," Turk told a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. "Most of the casualties resulted from the Russian forces' use of wide-impact explosive weaponry in residential neighborhoods."

Turk opened his speech saying that Ukraine was a nation "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," he said.

"People across the country face massive suffering and loss, deprivation, displacement and destruction."

"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."

UN condemns abuses by both sides in Ukraine

Turk said his office had documented 621 cases of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention.

He said that international law provided "minimum core values that, in the most distressing circumstances, preserve our humanity."

"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."

What interviewees told the UN

Interviews with 89 civilians released from detention indicated that 91% had been 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, Volker said. All five of these children were tortured or ill-treated.

Crimes of sexual violence, including rape, were perpetrated in areas controlled by Russian forces, mostly against women and girls under the age of 18.

Russia had also transferred Ukrainian civilians to territory that remains occupied, or to the Russian Federation, Volker said, adding that this could breach the Geneva Convention.

Kyiv says more than 16,000 Ukrainian children had been deported to Russia as of last month, and the International Criminal Court has announced an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin on the war crime accusation of unlawfully deporting Ukrainian children.

Prisoners of war tortured

Volk said more than 400 prisoners of war, on both sides, had been interviewed by his staff.

Ukrainian war prisoners in Russia

"More than 90% 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."

Volk said almost half of the Russian prisoners of war 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," he said.

Richard Connor Reporting on stories from around the world, with a particular focus on Europe — especially Germany.