Photo Source: UN Human Rights Council Youtube Channel.
Team UN Geneva Researcher,
Global Human Rights Defence.
At the 54th Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the issue of the human rights situation in Ukraine resulting from the Russian aggression was an intense debate between Member States and human rights NGOs. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine which was established in March 2022 by the UN General Assembly Resolution 49/1 with the aim to investigate, collect, document, and analyse alleged violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law, provided an oral update on the human rights situation in Ukraine covering the period from March to August 2023.
Erik Møse, the chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, expressed concerns about the continued evidence of war crimes committed by the Russian Armed Forces, including the targeting of civilian residential areas, medical instalments, and energy infrastructure. He underscored that people in Ukraine are still struggling with the loss of lives and injuries of loved ones, as well as economic difficulties. Since its establishment, the Commission has travelled ten times to Ukraine and they have just recently visited the town Uman where they met with survivors of the recent missile strike attack that happened on the night of April 28th, causing the death of 24 civilians. They listened to testimonies and the difficulties they are facing, especially in accessing basic services.
During the country visit, the three Commissioners, Erik Møse, Pablo de Greiff, and Vrinda Grover, have undertaken an in-depth investigation concerning incidents involving explosive attacks, acts of torture, sexual and gender-based violence, and assaults on energy infrastructure. They have also conducted instructive discussions with the authorities in Kyiv at various levels, and Møse stressed the Commission’s appreciation for the cooperation of the Government of Ukraine. However, the Commission regrets that all communications addressed to the Russian Federation remained unanswered.
In his speech, Møse also emphasised the concerning and systematic practice of torture used by the Russian Armed Forces. They found evidence that torture, such as the use of electric shock, was used to extract information from victims whether they have been informants of the Ukrainian armed forces. The Commission has also found evidence of rape and sexual violence committed by Russian Forces against women and girls of ages ranging from 19 to 83 years.
The harmful consequences of the war on children’s rights were also put in the spotlight in the update of the Commission, as well as in the oral statements of Member States. The Commission continued to investigate alleged cases of deportation of children to the Russian Federation. Nevertheless, the lack of clarity and transparency on the circumstances of children transferred hinders the Commission’s investigation on this matter. Lastly, Erik Møse reiterated his call to Ukrainian authorities to investigate the few cases of human rights violations that were committed by their own forces.
The list of speakers was extensive for this session, and the oral statements began with the concerned States. The representative of Ukraine expressed concern about the lack of criminal accountability of Russia not just toward Ukraine but toward Chechnya, Georgia, and Syria which paved the way to its ongoing aggression against Ukraine. Ukraine expressed its gratitude for the quick reaction of the UN by establishing this Commission and the continued investigations they undertake with the goal of holding the Russian Federation accountable for war crimes. Ukraine reiterated the alarming human rights violations taking place in Ukrainian territories such as the the deportation of over 19 thousand Ukrainian children and the torture and sexual violence perpetrated against thousands of prisoners of war by the Russian Armed Forces. The representative of the Russian Federation was not present during this session to respond.
During the discussion, an overwhelming number of States Members condemned the unjustified and unprovoked war of Russia and highlighted specific concerns on the deportation of Ukranian children and the food insecurity as a result of the Russian block on Ukranian food exports, as well as the widespread practice of rape and gender-based violence committed by the Russian forces. Several State representatives expressed their strong support for President Zelensky’s Peace Formula, and condemned the bombings of civilians, torture, rape, and forced kidnapping of children. France emphasised that “these crimes must not go unpunished” while Germany stated that Russia is spreading false narratives in the Council and beyond, and is trying to “justify the unjustifiable”.
Countries who opposed the mainstream narrative of this session in their oral statements were Türkiye, China, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Belarus, the Syrian Arab Republic, Nicaragua, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. These countries’ representatives urged the Council to conduct an impartial investigation for all kinds of violations of human rights, to respect the sovereignty of Member States, and to refrain from interference in domestic affairs,emphasising their rejection of the politicised nature of the Council. Belarus stressed that the Council ignores the violations committed by the Ukrainian forces, the destruction of Russian churches, and the fact that the Western supply of weapons and cluster munitions deployed in Ukraine are also serious threats to civilians. Belarus also made a provocative statement by stating that the deportation of Ukrainian children is a lie. Syria criticised the Council for “demonising other countries”, and along with Nicaragua, rejected the “manipulation” of the Council and its practice of punishing Russia for its policies.
In the last minutes of the session, the three Commissioners attempted to respond to the numerous questions addressed to them during the discussion. Most of the questions concerned the challenges of holding Russia accountable for the crimes committed and ensuring justice for the victims, as well as the challenges of investigating the cases of deportation of Ukranian children. In his response, Erik Møse stressed that the difficulties in holding responsible those who perpetrated war crimes and serious human rights violations derive from the lack of resources for human rights investigation. He added that the issue of deportation of children “remains very high on our priority list”, but that some of the necessary information is outside of the territory which the Commission has access to, and thus, called for more access to these territories which would greatly assist the Commission in their endeavours. Pablo de Greiff stated that the next step in the investigation of alleged deportation should be the establishment of a DNA bank for the identification of the children. Vrinda Grover emphasised that the Commission will continue to put victims at the forefront of the Commission’s actions, and maintain a victim-centric approach by prioritising the needs of the most vulnerable portions of the population: children, elders, women, and persons with disabilities. Finally, in reaction to some accusations, the Commissioners underscored their independence and impartiality in investigating crimes in the Russian-Ukrainian war context by looking for violations on both sides of the conflict.
Human Rights Council, HRC (7 March 2022). Resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council on 4 March 2022. A/HRC/RES/49/1. Retrieved on 28 September 2023 from https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G22/277/44/PDF/G2227744.pdf?OpenElement
Kelly, L. (28 December 2022). Explainer: What is Zelenskiy’s 10-point peace plan? Reuters. Retrieved on 28 September 2023 from https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/what-is-zelenskiys-10-point-peace-plan-2022-12-28/
OHCHR (2023). Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine. Retrieved on 28 September 2023 from https://www.ohchr.org/en/hr-bodies/hrc/iicihr-ukraine/index
United Nations Multimedia Newsroom (25 September 2023). HRC – Press Conference: Ukraine Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine. Retrieved on 28 September 2023 from https://www.unognewsroom.org/story/en/2012/hrc-press-conference-ukraine-commission-of-inquiry-on-ukraine-25-september-2023/5896
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