UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk concludes his official visit to Ukraine


Good afternoon and thank you all for coming.

I have been here now for four days, in sub-zero temperatures. I have seen for myself the horrors, suffering and the daily toll that this war against Ukraine by Russia has had on the people of this country.

I have spoken to the families of prisoners of war who anxiously await news of their loved ones. I’ve listened to the pain of those whose children are on the frontline; heard about the particular plight of people with disabilities and older people who are unable to reach safe shelter when the air raid sirens go off. I visited the site of a shelled apartment block in Izium, Kharkiv Oblast, where more than 50 people were buried under the rubble.

And in the rubble were the signs of lives cut short by acts of indiscriminate shelling.

A shoe. A piano. Toys. A closet full of clothes. Shelves of books.

I talked to a woman who showed me her destroyed apartment block, where all her neighbours, now dead, used to live.

I had to spend time in an underground shelter on Monday as at least 70 missiles were launched across Ukraine, again striking essential infrastructure and knocking out power. A group of human rights defenders joined us, and we calmly carried on with our meeting. As if it was normal to have your day interrupted by air raid sirens.

It is not normal. It must not be normal.

I fear that there is one long, bleak winter ahead for Ukraine. The consequences of the war on the enjoyment of human rights for people in the country have already been devastating, and the prognosis is very worrying.

Some 17.7 million people need humanitarian assistance and 9.3 million require food and livelihood assistance. A third of the population has been forced to flee their homes. Some 7.89 million have fled the country, the majority of whom are women and children, and 6.5 million people are internally displaced.

This means lives uprooted.

Humanitarian aid plays a vital role in providing support to the most vulnerable, including older people and people with disabilities. Providing an adequate social security net to the most vulnerable need to be prioritized.

Each day we receive information about war crimes. The scale of civilian casualties, as well as the significant damage and destruction to civilian objects – including hospitals and schools – is shocking as I saw for myself in Izium. During winter, this has horrible consequences for the most vulnerable. They are struggling with blackouts, with no heating or electricity, going on for hours.

Information continues to emerge about summary executions, torture, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances and sexual violence against women, girls and men.

In relation to continuing reports of ill-treatment, torture and execution of prisoners of war, my Office issued a statement in mid-November raising serious concerns based on our findings. We will continue to follow this issue closely.

Prisoners of war must be treated humanely at all times from the moment they are captured. This is a clear, unequivocal obligation under international humanitarian law. Prisoners of war who are suspected of committing war crimes should be prosecuted, in line with international standards. However, international law prohibits prosecuting them for mere participation in hostilities.

During my visit on Monday to Bucha, north of Kyiv, I saw the visible trail of destruction left following the Russian forces’ departure from the town in March. Bullet holes on the walls of houses. The town was retaken by Ukrainian forces within less than four weeks, but – six months on – the trauma of so many who lived, terrified, through that period, and others who lost loved ones, remains palpable.

Our presence here – the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine headed by Matilda Bogner – is today issuing a report that details the killings of civilians cutting firewood or buying groceries. The report documents the fate of 441 civilians in parts of three northern regions – Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy – that were under Russian control until early April. Bucha was the town hardest hit. We are working to corroborate allegations of additional killings in these regions, and in parts of Kharkiv and Kherson regions that were recently retaken by Ukrainian forces.

There are strong indications that the summary executions documented in the report constitute the war crime of wilful killing.

The victims and survivors of these violations have a right to truth, justice and reparation – accountability must be ensured as soon as possible. It is important to put in place programmes early on to provide compensation to victims and survivors, to fill the gap until those who are responsible meet their obligations.

What has also been deeply alarming is the questioning of international humanitarian law. We must remember that this area of law governing the conduct of hostilities emerged following the brutal Battle of Solferino in 1859 and was codified in the wake of the horrors of two world wars that started on this continent.

And let us not forget, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted in direct response to “the calamities and barbarous acts experienced by the peoples of the world during the Second World War”.

International humanitarian law is an important achievement of humanity and an obligation. My plea is to everyone engaged in hostilities to respect it fully, especially in the most difficult, most emotional circumstances. International humanitarian law is stronger than its violation by any State. A violation by one party does not legitimize violations by another.

I urge justice for all victims, whoever they are, with respect for their dignity and humanity. The imperative for accountability is not altered by the affiliation of the victim or perpetrator. All allegations of violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law – by whomever and wherever committed – must be promptly investigated and brought to justice, under a fair and independent legal process.

Such an approach is also essential to strengthen the rule of law in Ukraine.

As one human rights defender I met this week said it is crucial for Ukraine to hold on tight to the values of a free society, grounded in respect for the rule of law and human rights, including the freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial, the freedom of religious belief, the right to social security – the whole host of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.

And not to lose them in the fog of war.

I impressed upon my counterparts the need to keep a constant eye on the vision for the day after. To prepare now for the kind of Ukraine that the people would like to live in once this war is over. There will be a better future.

For this, human rights must be the guide.

This means building social cohesion among the different communities and ensuring the rights of the most vulnerable; ensuring equal access without discrimination to essential services for those most in need – including people with disabilities and older people, with women the most deeply affected.

It means ensuring a fully functioning judicial system that delivers fair trials and justice to the people; ensuring that allegations of violations – recent violations and since 2014 – are acted upon with urgency and transparency, investigated and followed through with prosecutions; ensuring that laws under consideration are fully in line with international human rights standards.

Civil society must be free to thrive, express their opinions and help to build a society that is strong through diversity.

I have been encouraged by the openness of the authorities and their engagement with my Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. In addition to our monitoring work, we have also been providing advice on laws that require amendment, including Law No. 2108-IX which in March introduced criminal liability for collaborating with an “aggressor State”. The law contains provisions that are vague, while imposing harsh penalties. We are calling for it to be amended to bring it in line with international standards, as mentioned in my meeting earlier this week with parliamentarians. My Office will follow up on this with specific recommendations. We have also shared our concerns with Parliament on the draft law on citizenship and the draft laws on media.

My Office in Ukraine has been working here uninterrupted since 2014 – documenting and reporting, working with civil society, advising the Government on compliance with international law and how to respond to our findings. Our mandate includes monitoring and reporting on all violations committed on the territory of Ukraine, irrespective of the perpetrator.

It is important for us to have access to the occupied areas of Ukraine, from where we also continue to receive reports of violations. We have not had recent access, but continue to seek it.

My representative in Ukraine and the head of our monitoring mission, Matilda Bogner, will now speak to you in more detail about our report on killings in northern Ukraine.

On my part, let me stress that the most effective way to stop the running catalogue of cruelty from continuing is to bring an end to this senseless war – in line with the UN Charter and international law. My most fervent wish is for all people in Ukraine to enjoy the right to peace.

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