Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine to Human Rights Council

OHCHR

Human Rights Council Concludes Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Burundi

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine this morning told the Human Rights Council that based on the evidence gathered by the Commission, it had concluded that war crimes have been committed by the Russian Federation in Ukraine.

Erik Møse, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, said that based on the evidence gathered by the Commission, it had concluded that war crimes had been committed in Ukraine. The Russian Federation’s use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas was a source of immense harm and suffering for civilians. Witnesses provided consistent accounts of ill-treatment and torture carried out during unlawful confinement. The Commission had found that some Russian Federation soldiers committed sexual and gender-based violence crimes, and had further documented cases in which children had been raped, tortured, unlawfully confined, killed and injured in indiscriminate attacks with explosive weapons. The Commission would continue its investigations, making recommendations regarding criminal accountability and other dimensions of accountability.

The Russian Federation was not present in the room to take the floor as a country concerned.

Ukraine, speaking as a country concerned, said the report of the Commission of Inquiry would become an important milestone on a path to accountability for Russia’s crimes against the people of Ukraine. Starting from day one, Ukraine had launched a comprehensive effort to guarantee no escape from accountability for this act of aggression. Eight months of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine made the international community witness to atrocities not seen on the European continent for decades and gave strong pretext for this demand for accountability. Ukraine called for the establishment of a Special Tribunal which would have a specific jurisdiction over the crime of aggression against Ukraine, and investigate and prosecute senior political and military leadership of the Russian Federation for committing this crime, and called on all relevant parties to join in this cause.

In the ensuing discussion on Ukraine, many speakers thanked the Commission of Inquiry for its update and work undertaken in the name of justice, truth, and peace. Many speakers condemned Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified military action, which was in blatant violation of international human rights law, and called on it to immediately withdraw all military forces from Ukraine. The discovery of mass graves in cities such as Izium, increasing civilian casualties, extrajudicial killings, acts of torture, rape and sexual and gender-based violence, forced deportation of children, and enforced disappearances were shocking. Some speakers said there was a need for increased dialogue and diplomacy to end the conflict, adding that conditions encouraging the parties to negotiate needed to be established. One speaker said that the conflict was caused by the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the security situation in the Donbas region. Western nations needed to remove harmful unilateral coercive measures impacting Russia, the speaker said.

Speaking in the discussion were Finland on behalf of the Nordic-Baltic countries, Lithuania, European Union, Sovereign Order of Malta, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Norway, Switzerland, Republic of Korea, Slovenia, Ecuador, France, Ireland, Australia, North Macedonia, UN Women, Germany, Austria, Venezuela, Malta, Netherlands, Syrian Arab Republic, Czech Republic, Iceland, Japan, United States of America, United Kingdom, Argentina, Timor-Leste, Croatia, Romania, Spain, Montenegro, Denmark, Republic of Moldova, Slovakia, Belgium, Poland, Bulgaria, Greece, Canada, Uruguay, Portugal, Georgia, Malawi, Albania, Latvia, Sweden, Türkiye, Estonia, Belarus, Cyprus, Israel, India, Bosnia Herzegovina, China, and New Zealand.

At the beginning of the meeting, the Council concluded its interactive discussion with the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burundi.

Some speakers said there had been some positive developments when the new administration came to power in Burundi in 2020, but there was still deep concern for the continuing human rights violations committed by the security forces against human rights defenders, civil society, and journalists. The Government had a responsibility to protect human rights and ensure that State- and non-State actors could not act with impunity. It must also ensure that human rights violations were investigated in an independent and impartial way, and perpetrators brought to justice. Refugees should be allowed to go home without discrimination, and without risking being discriminated against, poisoned or killed. Some speakers said the need to protect the stability of Burundi should be a priority when addressing the human rights in the country, avoiding any biased and politicised approach, and not putting any pressure on the Government in the name of human rights.

In concluding remarks, Fortune Gaetan Zongo, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burundi, said that the return to the rule of law and establishing State institutions that were resilient was important, but since 2015 the State had been struggling to recover. There had been a deterioration in the right to food and the right to health since 2015. Financial assistance was needed, but such assistance needed to be independently assessed to ensure that it would contribute to overall wellbeing and development. Independent, impartial and transitional justice were also necessary to plug the gaps in the justice system and bring justice to victims of abuses. Institutions needed to be built with the support of the independent National Human Rights Commission. States could support the National Human Rights Commission through training and funding. Civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights all needed to be promoted and upheld in Burundi.

Speaking in the interactive dialogue were Norway on behalf of a group of countries, European Union, Switzerland, France, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Egypt, Ireland, Luxembourg, Venezuela, Russian Federation, China, United States, Sri Lanka, United Kingdom, South Sudan, Yemen, Tanzania, Belgium, Kenya, Malawi, Morocco, Zimbabwe, Iran, and Netherlands.

Also speaking were International Federation of ACAT (Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture) on behalf of Centre pour les Droits Civils et Politiques – Centre CCPR and World Organisation Against Torture, East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, Rencontre Africaine pour la defense des droits de l’homme, Human Rights Watch, International Service for Human Rights, CIVICUS – World Alliance for Citizen Participation, World Organisation Against Torture, Elizka Relief Foundation, and Society for Threatened Peoples.

The webcast of the Human Rights Council meetings can be found here. All meeting summaries can be found here. Documents and reports related to the Human Rights Council’s fifty-first regular session can be found .

The next meeting of the Council will be at 3 p.m. this afternoon, when it will conclude its interactive discussion with the Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, and hold an interactive dialogue on the oral update by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Belarus in the run-up to the 2020 Presidential election and in the aftermath. At 5:30, the Council will meet in private to discuss its complaint procedure.

Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Burundi

The interactive dialogue with Fortune Gaetan Zongo, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burundi, started in the previous meeting and a summary can be found here.

Discussion

Some speakers said there had been some positive developments when the new administration came to power in Burundi in 2020, but there was still deep concern for the continuing human rights violations committed by the security forces against human rights defenders, civil society, and journalists. The Government had a responsibility to protect human rights and ensure that State- and non-State actors could not act with impunity. It must also ensure that human rights violations were investigated in an independent and impartial way, and perpetrators brought to justice. National human rights institutions, in particular the National Human Rights Commission, should be re-established and allowed to function, which would allow the authorities to deliver on their commitment to their people to protect their human rights and fundamental freedoms.

A number of speakers noted that the Government of Burundi had not responded to communications by the Special Rapporteur. The Government should cooperate with the United Nations human rights system and give the Special Rapporteur full and unhindered access, as well as initiate a constructive dialogue with him. It was important for human rights defenders to be able to carry out their work. The authorities should commit to fighting impunity, which was an essential part of the consolidation of peace.

The situation of human rights was brittle in Burundi, with ongoing allegations of acts of torture and unjust restrictions of fundamental freedoms, some speakers said. Civic space remained limited, and sexual violence was committed against women by the Imbonerakure. Refugees should be allowed to go home without discrimination, and without risking being discriminated against, poisoned or killed. Reports of torture and other cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment in detention centres were of concern, as were reports of extra-judicial killings. The authorities must respect the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, and hold all perpetrators accountable for human rights violations, regardless of their affiliation. Progress had been made, but much remained to be done.

Some speakers said that country-specific mandates without the consent of the country concerned were an interference in the internal affairs of countries, and some of the allegations in the report did not reflect the situation on the ground, nor were they objective, speakers said. This was counter-productive, and did not create a conducive environment for cooperation. Cooperation should be objective and impartial, aiming to resolve humanitarian challenges and ensure socio-economic development. Some speakers said the need to protect the stability of Burundi should be a priority when addressing the human rights in the country, avoiding any biased and politicised approach, and not putting any pressure on the Government in the name of human rights. The Human Rights Council should support States’ efforts, and engage in constructive dialogue so as to become aware of their problems, and offer solutions in the form of technical cooperation and capacity-building.

Concluding Remarks

FORTUNE GAETAN ZONGO, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burundi, said that the return to the rule of law and establishing State institutions that were resilient was important, but since 2015 the State had been struggling to recover. Robust institutions were needed to deal with the various violations of human rights occurring in the State. There had been a deterioration in the right to food and the right to health since 2015. Financial assistance was needed, but such assistance needed to be independently assessed to ensure that it would contribute to overall wellbeing and development. Independent, impartial justice and transitional justice were also necessary to plug the gaps in the justice system and bring justice to victims of abuses.

Institutions needed to be built with the support of the independent National Human Rights Commission. The National Human Rights Commission needed to document all human rights violations that occurred in Burundi. States could support the National Human Rights Commission through training and funding. There were two kinds of civil society in Burundi – those inside and those outside of the country. Mr. Zongo said he had not been able to cooperate with civil society organizations in the State, but had been able to cooperate with those in exile.

Civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights all needed to be promoted and upheld in Burundi.

Interactive Dialogue with the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine

Presentation

ERIK MØSE, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, said in May this year, the Council requested the Commission to address events that took place in late February and March 2022 in the areas of Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy, and to brief the Council on the progress of that inquiry in this session of the Council.

Tomorrow would mark seven months since the outset of hostilities in Ukraine. The Commission was concerned by the suffering that the international armed conflict in Ukraine had imposed on the civilian population. This was illustrated by the figures concerning deaths, injuries, refugees and internally displaced persons. The recent discovery of yet additional graves illustrated the gravity of the situation. The Commission, which was independent and impartial, had sought cooperation and dialogue with relevant Governments. It appreciated the access and cooperation extended to it by the Government of Ukraine. Attempts to engage in a constructive dialogue with Russian Federation authorities had, regretfully, so far not been successful, but the Commission would persist in its efforts.

In its investigations, the Commission visited 27 towns and settlements and interviewed more than 150 victims and witnesses. It inspected sites of destruction, graves, places of detention and torture, and met with Government authorities, international organizations, civil society and other relevant stakeholders. Based on the evidence gathered by the Commission, it had concluded that war crimes had been committed in Ukraine.

The Russian Federation’s use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas was a source of immense harm and suffering for civilians. The Commission observed first-hand the damage that explosive weapons had caused to residential buildings and infrastructure, including schools and hospitals. In Kharkiv, explosive weapons devastated entire areas of the city. According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, most of the recorded deaths were caused by such weapons. This devastation was one of the factors explaining why a third of the Ukrainian population had been forced to flee.

A number of the attacks had been carried out without distinguishing between civilians and combatants. These included some attacks with cluster munitions or multi-launch rocket systems and airstrikes in populated areas. The Commission was struck by the large number of executions in the areas visited. It was currently investigating such deaths in 16 towns and settlements. It had also received credible allegations regarding many more cases of executions, which it was documenting further. Common elements of such crimes included the prior detention of the victims as well as visible signs of executions on bodies, such as hands tied behind backs, gunshot wounds to the head and slit throats.

Witnesses provided consistent accounts of ill-treatment and torture carried out during unlawful confinement. Interlocutors described beatings, electric shocks, and forced nudity, as well as other types of violations in detention facilities. After being reportedly transferred into detention in the Russian Federation, some victims had disappeared. In the four areas investigated, the Commission had processed two incidents of ill-treatment against Russian Federation soldiers by Ukrainian forces. While few in numbers, such cases continued to be the subject of the Commission’s attention.

The Commission had found that some Russian Federation soldiers committed sexual and gender-based violence crimes. There were cases where relatives were forced to witness the crimes. The age of victims of sexual and gendered-based violence ranged from four to 82 years. The Commission had further documented cases in which children had been raped, tortured, unlawfully confined, killed and injured in indiscriminate attacks with explosive weapons. Exposure to repeated explosions, crimes, forced displacement and separation from family members deeply affected their well-being and mental health.

The Commission would continue its investigations, gradually devoting more of its resources to its general mandate in the first resolution, which was both geographically and thematically broader. Issues of interest would include filtration camps, alleged forced transfer of people, and the conditions under which expedited adoption of children were allegedly taking place. Depending on the availability of evidence, it would also investigate the destruction of civilian infrastructure; the appropriation or destruction of economic resources; violations of the right to food; and the legality of changes in local administration. In addition to making recommendations regarding criminal accountability, the Commission would make recommendations about other dimensions of accountability. It looked forward to further cooperation with all relevant actors to pursue the task entrusted to it by the Human Rights Council.

Statement by Country Concerne

FEDERICO VILLEGAS, President of Human Rights Council, understood that the delegation of the Russian Federation was not in the room. He deplored that as President of the Council.

Ukraine, speaking as a country concerned, said the report of the Commission of Inquiry would become an important milestone on a path to accountability for Russia’s crimes against the people of Ukraine. In February, as soon as Putin’s regime launched its unprovoked and unjustified full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it became evident that it would not shy away from the cruellest methods and that this war would have a devastating toll on millions of civilian lives. Starting from day one, Ukraine had launched a comprehensive effort with the involvement of all relevant national and international mechanisms and institutions to guarantee no escape from accountability for this act of aggression and numerous crimes committed in its course. Eight months of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine made the international community witness to atrocities not seen on the European continent for decades and gave strong pretext for this demand for accountability.

While it was crucial to ensure accountability for human rights violations and atrocities related to the Russian aggression, the people in Ukraine were not the only ones affected. Russia’s war had put numerous countries on the verge of hunger, exacerbated extreme poverty, created the threat of nuclear catastrophe unseen before, and undermined the livelihoods and prospects of millions around the world. There had never been a more appropriate time to fill in the glaring gap in the architecture of international criminal justice related to the prosecution of the crime of aggression against Ukraine. Ukraine called for the establishment of a Special Tribunal which would have a specific jurisdiction over the crime of aggression against Ukraine, and investigate and prosecute senior political and military leadership of the Russian Federation for committing this crime, and called on all relevant parties to join in this cause.

Discussion

In the ensuing interactive discussion, many speakers thanked the Commission of Inquiry for its update and work undertaken in the name of justice, truth and peace. The war in Ukraine was entering its seventh month. A State could not change the sovereign borders of another State through force of arms, a speaker said. Speakers deplored the reported international law violations committed by the Russian Federation, which were appalling and escaped any reasoning. The discovery of mass graves in cities such as Izium, increasing civilian casualties, extrajudicial killings, acts of torture, rape and sexual and gender-based violence, and enforced disappearances were shocking. Evidence of concentration camps brought back painful memories of Europe’s past. Civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and schools, had been damaged by military attacks, leaving millions without access to food, water, electricity and humanitarian support. The disproportionate impact on women and girls was particularly concerning. Russia had forcibly deported and arranged the adoption of Ukrainian children. Some speakers expressed concern at the recent announcement of further conscriptions of Russian troops.

Announced sham referenda were a cause for despair, one speaker said. Such referenda would never be accepted by the international community. Investigations of human rights violations needed to continue. Russia’s information campaigns sought to hide the facts of violations. All violations needed to be recorded, and perpetrators held to account by the international community. Russia needed to immediately end its military aggregation. Many speakers expressed support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine and called on Russia to withdraw all its troops immediately. Constructive solutions were needed to bring an end to the conflict. Action needed to be taken in the International Criminal Court to establish accountability.

A number of speakers noted that nearly 18 million Ukrainians required humanitarian assistance, including millions of displaced persons. International human rights law and humanitarian law needed to be upheld. Humanitarian organizations needed to be granted full access to disputed war zones.

One speaker congratulated Ukraine on ratifying the Istanbul Convention. There was a lack of women in leadership positions in Ukraine. The speaker called for women’s role in humanitarian efforts to be strengthened.

A speaker said that the conflict was caused by the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the security situation in the Donbas region. The members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization were prolonging the conflict by funding Ukraine’s military. Western nations needed to remove harmful unilateral coercive measures impacting Russia. Another speaker said that the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry was based on Western rhetoric. Russian media outlets were trying to shed light on what was really happening in Ukraine, but were being blocked by the West. The Council needed to not distort reality. Laws in Ukraine sought to undermine the identity of Russian speakers, and the Council needed to denounce such laws.

Interim Remarks

ERIK MØSE, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, said concerning cooperation and coordination, there were many actors on the ground, and it was hard to coordinate them, as they had different terms of reference and different aims, such as national or international prosecution. This was a question that every actor and each entity on the ground should ask themselves. The Commission had contacted all bodies that were relevant to its broad mandate, including the International Criminal Court, the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe, and other bodies, including the United Nations Mission in Ukraine. A lot of alternatives were faced, and the Commission was not in a position at this early stage to conclude, but would come back to the issues raised in its next report in March.

Cooperation with the Office of the Prosecutor in Ukraine was very satisfactory in terms of exchange of information. On sexual violence as a possible strategy of war, the Commission was identifying general patterns in the conflict that could be picked up, and its investigation in these areas had not yet established a general pattern. On cooperation or strengthening of the investigation, it was important that everyone involved try to use their resources as efficiently as possible. One area that could be strengthened was the forensic area, which was complicated and required expertise. All those investigating needed some kind of strategy as to what that particular entity wanted to focus on as a priority.

JASMINKA DŽUMHU, Member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, said there was a need for better use of resources, including forensic resources, as otherwise all violations would not be documented and there would be a problem to achieve justice. Victims required protection and support, and, as sources of information, all actors who could support them, including national authorities and international organizations, needed to do so. On issues affecting children, the Commission was focusing on that and would continue to do so. The exact name, identity and nationality of each child had to be specified.

PABLO DE GREIFF, Member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, said the Commission was aware of its responsibilities, and was trying to discharge them with as much independence and impartiality as possible. On the possibility of fulfilling the mandate of the Commission within the deadline, they were working in a context that was both complex and dynamic. The resolution creating the mandate framed it in very broad terms. The context and the broad mandate presented challenges, particularly as they did not have access to all the relevant territory. The collaboration of the Government of Ukraine with the Commission had been indispensable for its work. The Commission would like to have unhindered access to all areas where violations had been taking place, and to investigate them more fully.

Discussion

Continuing the discussion, many speakers condemned Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified military action, which was in blatant violation of international human rights law, and called on it to immediately withdraw all military forces from Ukraine. There was reason to believe that some of the human rights abuses committed by Russia amounted to war crimes. The recent discovery of a mass grave in Izium was alarming, as were reports of rape and sexual abuse, arbitrary detention, deportation of children to penal camps and Russian territory, torture and extrajudicial executions. There were massive waves of internally displaced persons needing support. Civilian casualties continued to rise, and enforced disappearances were the norm. Russia had repeatedly demonstrated its will to destroy the Ukrainian State through words and deeds. The pain and suffering of the Ukrainian people would be felt for a long time, a speaker said.

Attempts from the international community to stop the abuses occurring in Ukraine had failed, one speaker said. Sexual and gender-based violence needed to be stopped immediately. Russia needed to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine and stop violating humanitarian and human rights law. Violations of human rights needed to be meticulously investigated. Many speakers expressed their support for the work of the Commission of Inquiry in establishing accountability. Full, unhindered access to all areas of conflict for the Commission and humanitarian organizations was vital. Action needed to be brought against all those responsible for human rights abuses in fora such as the European Human Rights Court and the International Criminal Court to fight impunity and ensure accountability. Justice for victims would be the foundation for future peace.

There was a need for increased dialogue and diplomacy to end the conflict, some speakers noted, saying that conditions encouraging the parties to negotiate needed to be established. The impact of the conflict was being felt worldwide through the surging costs of living, some speakers said. There was a need to address these effects through targeted financial support and economic cooperation.

One speaker said that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had not taken any action to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine since it began its investigations in the Donbas region in 2014. Accusations that focused on Russia only were a dead end. Belarus was not a party to the conflict in Ukraine. Human rights abuses would end when the conflict ended, and peace could only be achieved through dialogue.

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