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War crimes in the wake of Russia’s military onslaught on Ukraine

War crimes in the wake of Russia’s military onslaught on Ukraine
War crimes in the wake of Russia’s military onslaught on Ukraine
In partnership with:
Truth Hounds

International Partnership for Human Rights publishes an analysis of grave IHL violations during the first 48 hours of Russia’s blatant attack on Ukraine, prepared by Truth Hounds on 26/02/22.

Introduction 

On 24 February 2022, the Russian Federation initiated military operations against Ukraine, supposedly aimed at “demilitarising” and “denazifying” the neighbouring state, according to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Artillery rounds and rockets were fired at  numerous targets, while motorised and airborne troops advanced into Ukrainian territory from  multiple directions, including from Belarus. The invasion has met stiff resistance from the  Ukrainian Armed Forces and the Russian Army is apparently sustaining heavy casualties. 

As of 10:00 am (UTC+2) on 26 February, since the onset of Putin’s war against  Ukraine, 198 civilians have been killed, three of them children. In addition, 1,115 civilians,  including 33 children, have been injured by the Russian forces in the course of hostilities, according to Viktor Lyashko, Ukraine’s Minister of Health. 

Truth Hounds have been documenting international crimes committed by all actors  during the armed conflict in and occupation of parts of Ukraine’s territory since 2014. We have  made submissions to the International Criminal Court, and provided analytical reports to national investigative authorities, including the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine.  

Our team has continued documenting war crimes during the current large-scale wave  of aggression. Truth Hounds documenters are currently working in several cities affected by the invasion across central, northern, eastern, and southern Ukraine. We also maintain a wide network of informers on the ground, including relatives and friends, who provide the latest up to-date information. 

The present analytical brief is primarily based on open sources, verified by our  analysts. We do not publish the exact addresses or detailed locations of the attacks, as  hostilities in many such places remain ongoing and the precise locations may be utilised to  gain military advantage. 

Crimes committed during the first day of active hostilities 

Russian intervention in Ukraine is a blatant violation of the prohibition on the use of  force inscribed in Article 2(4) of the Charter of the United Nations. The intervention itself constitutes a serious breach of international law and, from an individual perspective, may be categoriіed as a crime of aggression. Were that not enough, during only the first two days of hostilities, the armed forces of the Russian Federation committed a series of war crimes. These can be categorised into four baskets: attacks against the civilian population and civilian objects (especially those that enjoy special protection, such as hospitals and buildings  dedicated to education), attacks against medical units and medical personnel, improper use  of the military emblems, insignia, or uniforms of the adversary, and perfidy.  

Attacks against the civilian population and civilian objects.

A number of the  Russian Federation’s artillery attacks and airstrikes targeted civilian objects that were situated  far from any significant military objectives. At 08:23 am (UTC+2), on 24 February 2022, an  artillery shell hit the yard of an apartment building in Chuhuiv, Kharkiv Oblast. There is verified  information that a young boy died and several people were injured. The shelling caused a fire on the second, third, and fourth floors of the building. The total area of the fire was around 100 square metres. Ukrainian firefighters were able to put out the fire. Dozens of apartments had  their windows smashed, furniture and other property was damaged, as were cars. The type of  weapon from which the shelling was carried out has not been established. However, the nature  of the damage indicates that Russian forces probably used a BM-30 Smerch multiple rocket  launcher (hereinafter, “Smerch”). There are no military targets in the areas of Chuhuiv where  the shelling caused casualties and destruction. The shelled apartment building is located 1.4  km away from Chuhuiv Air Base and 6.2 km away from the then-location of the 6th Division of  the National Guard of Ukraine. Note, the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) separately identified the remnants of a Smerch rocket following shelling of Kharkiv. The shelling caused no  casualties and no destruction.  

On the same day, 24 February 2022, around 10:00 am (UTC+2), an artillery shell struck  an apartment building on the northern outskirts of Kharkiv. One apartment was damaged. At  least one person was injured, while the facade, windows, and the ceiling between two floors  were damaged. Based on a photo taken at the location, it is evident that the apartment building  was shelled with a Smerch rocket. The military facility closest to the damaged building was  Military Unit 3017 of the National Guard of Ukraine, some 5.4 km away. 

Photo credit: Suspilne.media.

On the same day, 24 February 2022, another civilian sector in the northern part of  Kharkiv was hit by a Smerch rocket. The shell exploded in the yard of a residential building,  damaging walls and smashing windows. There were no casualties among the local population.  The nearest military facility—Military Unit 3005—is situated 16 km from the location of impact.  There is also evidence of a Smerch rocket attack on the grounds of the local university building  and student dormitory. There were no casualties or injuries among the population. No military  facilities are located near the university.

A video published online shows that Russian troops fired using cluster munitions, the  hits described above being from 300 mm Smerch shells. An analyst from Truth Hounds, who  was in Kharkiv at the time of the attack, verified the location of the video, confirming that the shelling took place in the district of Oleksiyivka. It should be noted that the location of the  shelling in Kharkiv shows that the same type of rockets struck objects located a short distance  from each other and at a considerable distance from any military facilities. This is indicative of  the indiscriminate nature of the attack on civilian targets.

On 25 February, an airstrike killed 4 and wounded 15 in Marianivka, Kyiv Oblast. There  were reportedly no military objectives in close proximity to the destroyed civilian building.

Donetsk Oblast was the target of a series of attacks on the night of 23-24 February.  The shelling of cities located in the territory under Ukrainian control began at 05:00 am  (UTC+2). A video showing the shelling of dormitories in Mariupol was published at 05:38 am  (UTC+2). At 07:20 am (UTC+2), it became known that seven private residences were on fire  as a result of the shelling. On 24 February, there were four massive attacks on Donetsk, all targeting residential areas away from military installations. At 12:45 pm (UTC+2), the residential district of Shidniy was shelled with a BM-21 Grad multiple missile launcher system (hereinafter, “Grad”). The battle around Mariupol lasted until 04:00 pm (UTC+2). During this  time, the city’s civilian infrastructure came under fire from both Grad and Smerch missiles. The Shidniy and Livobereshniy residential areas were the most severely damaged. At least seven  civilians were killed and a further seven injured.

On the territory in Donetsk Oblast not then controlled by Ukraine, artillery shelling of  the city of Donetsk was reported. During the shelling, the regional children’s hospital in Kalinin  District was hit. We could not clarify whether Ukrainian military forces were nearby. Neither was it possible to clarify whether information regarding shelling in the areas of Izotov Park, a residential building on Shivopysna Street, and civilian buildings on Sportyvna Street and Mamedova Street in Horlivka, Donetsk Oblast. It has been stated that five people were  wounded and another killed as a result of these shelling attacks, but it was not possible to determine whether Ukrainian military forces were present at these locations at the supposed time of the shelling.

Several attacks in Kyiv, Donetsk, Zaporizhia, and Sumy Oblasts seemed to target  schools, kindergartens, and hospitals. From the information currently available, no military objectives were situated near the targets of the attack. Education and educational institutions enjoy special protection in international humanitarian law (hereinafter, “IHL”), as do hospitals  and other medical institutions. Intentional attacks on such objects constitute even more grave  violations of IHL.

During the shelling of the south-eastern outskirts of Mauripol at 07:20 pm (UTC+2), on  25 February 2022, a local school (№48) and a neighbouring residential building were hit,  resulting in injuries to three people.

During the shelling of Vuhledar, Donetsk Oblast at 11:00 pm (UTC+2), on 24 February  2022, a shell hit a municipal outpatient clinic, killing four civilians and injuring a further 10. Six of the casualties were medical personnel.

At 06:53 am (UTC+2), on 24 February 2022, during the assault on Shchastia, Luhansk  Oblast, a shell struck a boarding school. The closest military target that belonged to the Armed  Forces of Ukraine was located 1.5 km away from the strike. However, due to the ongoing  assault on the city, the exact distance between the school and the Ukrainian-held position at  the time may have been different to that stated above.

At 08:17 am (UTC+2) on 24 February 2022, the Armed Forces of Ukraine announced that Russian military forces may attack Vorzel, located on the outskirts of Kyiv. At the same time, pro-Russian media reported that Russian military forces had entered Vorzel. At 01:03  pm (UTC+2) the same day, there were reports that Vorzel was under fire from Grad shells.  Later, it was reported that shrapnel from these shells struck the premises of one of the largest  orphanages in Ukraine. Children and teachers at the orphanage were already sheltered at the  time of the shelling and there were no physical injuries reported. It was suggested that  disinformation distributed by pro-Russian media—which claimed that Russian military forces were present in the city—was intended to establish a pretext for falsely blaming the shelling  on the Ukrainian military. However, following the shelling, pro-Russian media did not publish  any additional information about these events or about Vorzel.

On 24 February 2022, a residential area—which included a kindergarten—in Okhtyrka,  Sumy Oblast, was struck by rockets from a BM-27 Uragan multiple missile launcher system, according to preliminary assessments. The attack killed five people and injured a further 18,  including two young boys who suffered grave wounds to their chest and stomach. Many of the wounded suffered injuries to limbs caused by rocket shrapnel.

Individuals killed by the shelling of a kindergarten in Okhtyrka, Sumy Oblast.

Russian military forces in Kherson Oblast fired at a vehicle containing at least four civilians for 60 seconds using automatic firearms. These Russian military forces were located  near to a destroyed vehicle and a mobile surface-to-air missile system (specifically, a “9K33 Osa”) in Kherson Oblast, which Russia had attacked from the occupied Crimean Peninsula. In  the course of the shooting, several rounds hit the vehicle, shattering windows. There are also reports that Russian military forces shelled civilian vehicles outside of Kharkiv in the direction of Tsyrkuny. The shelling resulted in the death of at least one person.

Attacks against medical units and medical personnel.

Medical units and medical  personnel enjoy the utmost protection in the course of armed conflict. They may lose this protection only if they are being used, outside their humanitarian function, to commit acts  harmful to the enemy. In at least three reported cases, medical personnel were made targets of attack while performing their usual function of providing medical assistance to wounded persons. Since 24 February 2022, Russian military forces have shelled ambulances.

Around 11:00 am (UTC+2), on 24 February 2022, Russian military forces shelled medical facilities. The attacks struck a hospital in Vuhledar, Donetsk Oblast, resulting in the  following casualties among medical personnel at the hospital: four dead and six sustaining  injuries of varying degrees of severity.

Improper use of military emblems, insignia, or uniforms of the adversary.

IHL clearly prohibits making improper use of the national flag or military ensigns and uniform of the  enemy in order to shield, favour, protect, or impede military operations. On 25 February,  Ukrainian armed forces engaged with several groups of Russian armed forces that used  Ukrainian ensigns and uniforms to penetrate into the rear of Ukrainian positions. Such  actions constitute a grave violation of IHL and should be regarded as war crimes.

Perfidy

To penetrate deep into the rear of Ukrainian positions, the Russian  Federation’s forces – apart from using Ukrainian military uniforms – also made use of civilian  clothing. This unlawful tactic was supposed to help Russian armed forces mingle among the  civilian populations of Ukrainian cities and then attack Ukrainian armed forces when the  situation allowed. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court qualifies such actions  as war crimes provided that individuals belonging to the hostile nation or army were  treacherously wounded or killed. While there is currently no confirmed information about the  members of the Ukrainian armed forces wounded or killed by Russian servicemen wearing  civilian clothing, at least two cases of use of civilian clothing were reported in Bucha, Kyiv Oblast and in the City of Kyiv.

In addition to the tactic described above, the Russian Federation’s forces allegedly  employed another treacherous method of warfare. As such, the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine reported that, on 24 February, Russian forces used cars bearing the emblems of  the OSCE to approach Ukrainian positions and then launch attacks on them. The use of such methods, if proven, are in violation of IHL and constitute the war crime of perfidy.

In lieu of conclusions

Some of the gross IHL violations documented during the first day of active hostilities unfortunately accompany most of contemporary armed conflict. Of course, this doesn’t make them any less evil compared to other grave violations of IHL. However, such war crimes as  treacherous wounding and killing and improper use of military emblems, insignia, or uniforms of the adversary are more common to asymmetric warfare where one party to the conflict  cannot respond equally to the military force of the other and, therefore, employs unlawful  methods of warfare. The Russian Federation is anything but a technically outmatched and underdeveloped military force. Resorting to perfidy and improper use of military emblems,  insignia, or uniforms in this context amplifies the Russian Federation’s general and unfortunate disrespect for IHL.

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