“We had crazy plans for the year. Go to the beach, do a lot of things. One moment, one morning put an end to all of them… Our belongings got looted and destroyed. People we knew died… We have been running for our family and kids’ lives.”
— Olena Mitusova, a mother of three who fled the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014 and more recently, escaped the war in 2022 when her family’s house was bombed.
In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, millions of Ukrainians, like Olena Mitusova, are still awaiting justice and accountability for grave human rights violations and war crimes committed against them and their country. They are the victims or family members or friends of victims of torture, sexual violence, enforced disappearance, detention, and looting of cultural property.
Despite prior eight years of conflict in eastern Ukraine between government forces and Russia-backed separatists — costing the lives of 14,000 civilians and 19 months since the war escalated into what is now termed the bloodiest conflict in Europe since World War II — there has been insufficient action to deliver justice for these victims.
So, what is the international community doing to address the war and issues of justice it has raised?
Over the years, international human rights organisations, as well as various human rights experts and concerned donors, have drawn significant international attention to the issue and have called for accountability. Many of these organisations and their partners have initiated various initiatives to support victims, raise awareness, hold perpetrators accountable, and advocate for the protection of human rights.
One is Amnesty International’s “Write for Rights” campaign, a platform that urges people worldwide to write letters, send emails, tweet and sign petitions to exert pressure on governments and leaders to secure the release of individuals who have been unjustly persecuted due to their beliefs and actions.
In the context of the Ukraine-Russia conflict, a petition was launched to seek the release of Aleksandar Skochilenko, a Russian artist and activist who faced imprisonment for opposing his country’s aggression against Ukraine.
Skochilenko’s alleged crime was replacing price tags in a local supermarket in Saint Petersburg with information about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, an act not recognised as a crime internationally.
Amnesty International has classified Skochilenko as a “prisoner of conscience,” someone imprisoned solely due to their identity or their beliefs, and who has neither advocated violence nor hatred.
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Despite numerous global petitions through “Write for Rights” and other channels, Skochilenko remains in detention until October 10, 2023. Nevertheless, Amnesty International and other international organisations have played a vital role in shedding light on her legal case and the conditions of her incarceration.
Additional petitions also call for justice for Maksym Butkevych, a Ukrainian human rights defender detained by Russia, and the cessation of the forced transfer and deportation of civilians from Ukraine to Russia.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) is investigating war crimes in Ukraine, and a crucial aspect of these investigations relies on digital evidence gathered by human rights organisations, journalists, ordinary citizens, and even perpetrators themselves over the course of the war.
Social media posts, satellite imagery, and online videos have all contributed to creating a digital archive of war crimes in real life. If incidents of war crimes extend to executing prisoners of war and bombing of civilian infrastructure, this digital data will play a key role.
For example, two international research agencies that have previously collaborated with the ICC have released their own visual investigations.
SITU Research, an organisation that helps NGOs, academic institutions and governments globally to incorporate actionable qualitative research into their studies has compiled digital evidence of war crimes in Bucha.
Forensic Architecture, a research group that uses technologies to investigate cases of state violence and violations of human rights worldwide, has published three investigations of war crimes in Ukraine, including the devastating Russian attack on the Mariupol Theater in March 2022.
Additionally, Human Rights Watch has documented numerous attacks by Russian forces in Kharkiv, including the use of explosive weapons in densely populated residential areas. This digital evidence not only serves to build a real-time digital picture of events on the ground but also holds the potential to be used as proof in future judicial proceedings.
Traditionally, gathering evidence of war crimes in person is a laborious and perilous task. Accessing locations where atrocities occur can be challenging and dangerous long after the crimes have occurred. Moreover, in-person evidence often relies on witness testimonies of traumatic events which can be inconsistent and incomplete.
In contrast, digital records offer a promising avenue for investigations. They provide essential details about human rights violations, including those unfolding in real-time, which might otherwise stay concealed from the public eye.
While technology does raise concerns about the authenticity of content, the ICC is currently deploying the Berkeley Protocol, a guide on digital evidence intended for international court investigators, lawyers and judges in its investigations. This means that when the time comes for prosecutors to present digital evidence of Russian war crimes in court, disputes over validity are likely to be minimal.
The international legal community is also keeping pace with the quest for accountability in the Russian war in Ukraine. While Ukraine is not part of the ICC, it has given the ICC jurisdiction to prosecute war crimes committed on its territory.
On March 2, 2023, the ICC initiated a comprehensive investigation into historical and current allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide that occurred in Ukraine since November 21, 2013.
As part of this effort, the ICC established an online platform enabling individuals with pertinent evidence to directly contact investigators. Additionally, a team of investigators, legal experts, and other professionals was dispatched to Ukraine to commence the collection of evidence.
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Then, on March 7, 2023, the ICC issued arrest warrants for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s children’s rights commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova. These warrants are based on charges related to their alleged involvement in the abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is also involved in addressing the conflict. In March 2022, Ukraine brought a case against Russia based on the 1968 Genocide Convection, alleging that Russia abused the convection to justify its invasion. The court ordered Russia to halt hostilities in Ukraine, a ruling that Moscow has disregarded.
The case resumed on 18 September 2023, with arguments centring on jurisdiction and the genocide convection’s applicability. The ruling will determine whether it can proceed and may take years to reach a final verdict.
Apart from these legal avenues, two independent international agencies, the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine and the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, are actively investigating human rights violations and breaches of international humanitarian law in the region. The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission has been monitoring violations since 2014 and suspended Russia from the UN Human Rights Council in April 2022.
As of late October, the Ukrainian Prosecutor’s office had recorded over 39,000 reported Russian war crimes, identified more than 600 suspects, and initiated legal proceedings against about 80 of them.
While International Human Rights Organisations undoubtedly play a pivotal role in the ongoing struggle for Ukraine’s freedom and the defence of global human rights, it is essential for their efforts to match the scale of human rights violations.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, as of September 2023, there have been 9,614 civilian deaths during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with 17,535 reported injuries. However, the UN Agency also noted that the actual numbers could be higher.
Despite these sobering statistics, these organisations remain practical tools available to individuals and groups worldwide, contributing to peacekeeping and peacebuilding efforts during and after conflicts.