A group of United Nations experts investigating human rights violations committed in Ukraine in the seven months since Russia invaded said on Friday they had turned up evidence of war crimes.
The experts from the Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, mandated by the Human Rights Council earlier this year, have so far focussed on four regions – Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Sumy.
The Commission visited 27 towns and spoke with 150 victims and witnesses as part of their initial investigation, inspecting graves and place of detention and torture.
Victims described beatings, electric shocks, and forced nudity in Russian detention centres, the commission said.
"Based on the evidence gathered by the commission, it has concluded that war crimes have been committed in Ukraine," Erik Møse, the commission's chairman, told the Human Rights Council.
Commission member Pablo de Greiff told reporters the team had “found two instances of ill-treatment of Russian Federation soldiers by Ukrainian soldiers. ... We have found obviously significantly larger numbers of incidences that amount to war crimes on the part of the Russian Federation.”
The team travelled in June to Bucha outside Kyiv where authorities found mass graves after Russian forces retreated from the area in late March.
“We were struck by the large number of executions in the areas that we visited. The commission is currently investigating such deaths in 16 towns and settlements,” Møse said, but he did not specify which side allegedly committed the executions.
The experts also found that some Russian soldiers committed sexual or gender-based crimes including sexual violence, torture or inhumane treatment. The victims ranged in age from four to 82-years-old.
The findings echo reports by news outlets and others of the destruction, death and despair in Ukraine since Russia launched its invasion in late February.
The Commission's findings could ultimately contribute to the work of International Criminal Court prosecutors who could bring charges over war crimes in Ukraine, although it remains uncertain whether Russia or other alleged perpetrators will ever face justice.
Ukraine calls for special tribunal
Anton Korynevych, ambassador-at-large for Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry, joined envoys from a number of Western countries who spoke out against Moscow’s war in the wake of the commission’s presentation. Russia’s delegation boycotted the council meeting.
Korynevych, speaking by video, called for the creation of a special tribunal that would have jurisdiction “over the crime of aggression against Ukraine” and investigate senior Russian political and military leaders who were allegedly responsible.
He said accountability was crucial for rights violations and atrocities linked to Russia’s “aggression.” But Korynevych also highlighted how the war's impact has rippled through the world and “put numerous countries on the verge of hunger, exacerbated extreme poverty, created the threat of nuclear catastrophe unseen before” and harmed the livelihoods of millions of people.
The UN experts plan to gradually expand their investigation, with areas of interest including allegations of filtration camps for people being detained or deported, the forced transfer of people, and allegations of expedited adoption of children.
“The evidence of Russia’s atrocities becomes more horrifying by the day, most recently with the uncovering of mass graves in Izium, where the bodies show signs of torture,” Michele Taylor, the US ambassador to the rights council, said, referring to a Kharkiv regional city that Ukrainian forces recaptured in recent weeks.
Taylor urged the commissioners to continue to “examine the growing evidence of Russia’s filtration operations, forced deportations and disappearances.”
She referred to “numerous sources” that indicated Russian authorities have interrogated, detained and/or forcibly deported between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens, and reports that children were being deported from Ukraine and placed in Russian orphanages for adoption.
A handful of Russia’s allies took to the defence of Moscow.
Ina Vasileuskaya, the deputy permanent representative of Belarus to the UN in Geneva, said Russia’s invasion aim was to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine.
“Biased discussions in the Human Rights Council only accusing Russia are a dead end,” she said.
Vasileuskaya said her country was not a party to the conflict, although Belarus was one of the places Russian forces gathered before invading Ukraine.