Human Rights Council sharpens focus in Ukraine

International investigators were directed to focus their efforts on possible war crimes by Russian soldiers near Ukraine’s capital and other regions.

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The Ukrainian village of Novoselivka, near Chernihiv (AN/Oleksandr Ratushniak)

GENEVA — International human rights investigators were directed by the 47-nation U.N. Human Rights Council on Thursday to focus their efforts on possible war crimes by Russian soldiers near Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv and regions occupied by Russian troops at the start of their invasion.

At the council’s 33-2 vote with 12 abstentions during a special session on Ukraine, the United Nations human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, said the bodies of more than 1,000 civilians have been recovered in the Kyiv region alone that Russian forces occupied in late February and March. China and Eritrea were the only two nations that voted against the measure.

“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,” she told the council.

At least 300 people were summarily executed and others were shot by snipers, according to evidence collected by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR, which Bachelet heads.

“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,” said Bachelet. “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.”

The council’s resolution builds on its decision in March authorizing the creation of a three-member commission of inquiry to monitor and investigate all “abuses and violations of international humanitarian law” resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. With that earlier resolution, Russia and Eritrea were the only two countries that were opposed; 13 nations, including China, India, Pakistan and Sudan, abstained from the vote.

Ukraine’s Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzhaparova, told the council that Russia is committing “the most gruesome human rights violations on the European continent in decades.”

A ‘child rights crisis’

The U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council in April, pointing to evidence of grave war crimes in Ukraine.

The United Nations and International Committee of the Red Cross successfully evacuated more than 500 civilians who were trapped inside Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant. However, Bachelet expressed outrage at the “unimaginable horrors” unfolding throughout Mariupol, where international investigators and monitors have been unable to enter as Russian forces take over after a nearly three-month siege.

“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,” she said. “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.”

OHCHR also has verified a dozen cases of sexual violence across the country and is looking into more allegations in the Kyiv region that include rape and murder of female and male victims or their relatives, but survivors often are unwilling to be interviewed due to fear and stigma.

Separately, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Omar Abdi told the U.N. Security Council on Thursday that at least 100 children have been confirmed killed in the fighting in Ukraine in the past month but her agency believes the actual figure is “considerably” higher.

“More children have been injured and faced grave violations of their rights, millions more have been displaced. Schools continue to be attacked and used for military purposes and water and sanitation infrastructure impacted. The war in Ukraine, like all wars, is a child protection and child rights crisis,” he said.

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