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Ukraine: NGOs help prosecutors document Russian war crimes

Igor Burdyga
March 23, 2023

Ukrainian nonprofits are gathering evidence of Russian war crimes, but experts say it could be decades before perpetrators are brought to justice.

Authorities take photographs of a body while exhuming two bodies from a grave as part of a war crimes investigation
Prosecutors in Ukraine are receiving support from Ukrainian NGOsImage: David Ryder/ZUMA Wire/IMAGO

Since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year, Ukrainian authorities have recorded over 75,000 war crimes committed by the Russian armed forces. National investigators and prosecutors, as well as international investigative bodies, are racing to secure evidence and to interview witnesses. But the sheer volume of crimes is so vast that it could take decades to bring most of the perpetrators to court.

Over 30 Ukrainian NGOs are supporting the investigations, as part of the Ukraine 5AM Coalition that was formed last year. The alliance's goal is to lend a voice to the victims of Russia's armed aggression, and to bring to justice the direct pereptrators of war crimes as well as the top leadership of the Russian Federation. Some of the organizations in the alliance have been conducting their investigations since Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014. Now, they are sharing their experience with their civil society colleagues, and also with representatives from investigating authorities.

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Collecting eyewitness testimonies  

"No country has ever been able to prepare to prosecute all war crimes. Until 2014, Ukraine had no such experience, and so civil society took action," said Roman Avramenko, the executive director of the human rights organization Truth Hounds.

He said that the partnership between officials and human rights activists was going well. He explained that the NGOs had set up hotlines to gather eyewitness testimonies as well as collecting evidence on the ground and he said that they were able to exchange information with the authorities thanks to an electronic database that had been set up specially. At times, NGOs conducted their own investigations too, he said. He added that Ukrainian investigators also trained people to identify a war crime. 

Tetiana Pechonchyk from Ukraine's Information Centre for Human Rights (ZMINA), said that  forced deportations were an example of war crimes that at first glance neither law enforcement officers nor victims recognized as such. "On its field missions, ZMINA has recorded 233 cases of deportations, for example from villages in the region of Kharkiv  along the border with Russia. As we were interviewing people, we realized that hardly any of the victims had alerted the authorities. Many didn't even realize a crime had been committed against them because the deportations had been camouflaged as evacuation measures," she said.

Olha Skrynyk from the Crimean Human Rights Group explained that the situation regarding journalists and activists who had been imprisoned after joining the resistance movement in Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories was even more complicated. She said that it was often only from relatives that their disappearances became apparent. She added that since most of them had not been officially indicted they had hardly any legal protection and explained that that NGOs were often the only ones with the necessary contacts and networks to locate them in Russian jails.

"We know of at least 110 people, who have been imprisoned in a new, specially equipped internment camp in Simferopol," Skrynyk said, referring to the second-largest city in Russian-occupied Crimea. "But the possibilities of locating these people and monitoring their conditions are severely limited," she added, saying that Russia refused to "recognize these prisoners as prisoners of war, which makes their release practically impossible."

A cross on a grave with bodies of civilians and apartment blocks in Bucha
Russia is accused of committing war crimes in Bucha, UkraineImage: Mykhaylo Palinchak/ZUMA Wire/IMAGO

Rise of hate speech

Oksana Romaniuk, the executive director of Ukraine's Institute of Mass Information (IMI) that has been documenting crimes against journalists for years, said that over 500 crimes against media representatives had been recorded since Russia's full-scale invasion. 

She also argued that in her opinion the term "disinformation” had for years been incorrectly applied: "When we speak of Russian propaganda, we tend to forget that in reality, it is an extreme form of hate speech."

She explained that this had "become extremely aggressive this year, with unveiled calls to commit genocide, bomb civilian targets, and to murder Ukrainians. All this can be traced back to Putin's doctrines."

The IMI has been working to have instances of aggressive propaganda recognized as a criminal offense, but understands that international law does not yet define it as such: "To me, it is clear that this constitutes a crime against humanity and a crime of aggression, but this dimension is not described anywhere. That is why we face the challenge of ensuring that these propagandists receive justice, including at the international level."

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Ensuring evidence is trustworthy

The NGOs are trying to work effectively with the respective prosecuting authorities, but the specifics of criminal law mean that the evidence cannot always be used or its use can be complicated. "If you want, say, a YouTube video or a journalist's article to be added to a file, a number of steps are necessary to ensure that the court classifies it as admissible evidence," explained Olga Reshetylova, the co-founder of Ukraine's Media Initiative for Human Rights."

Organizations often receive images and videos via social media but it is difficult to determine whether the material is authentic, and the sender is trustworthy. To solve this problem, the Ukrainian National Bar Association (UNBA) is promoting the mobile app "eye Witness to Atrocities," which was developed by the International Bar Association (IBA) to document atrocities. The technology makes it impossible to falsify images or videos by logging the exact coordinates of where they are recorded and uploading all of the data to a secure server, explained Dmytro Hladkyi, a lawyer from Zaporizhzhia.

This article was translated from German.