Ukrainian human rights activists in New York talk about Russian war crimes in Ukraine

On December 13, in New York, Ukrainian human rights organizations took part in the event “Victims-centered justice in the Ukraine situation: effective ways to address crimes against civilians” within the framework of the 22nd Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Statute.

The event was organized with the support of the Permanent Missions of Sweden and Ukraine to the UN. ZMINA Human Rights Center, Media Initiative for Human Rights, Truth Hounds and Ukrainian Legal Advisory Group, International Renaissance Foundation and Center for Civil Liberties presented their vision of what justice should be, with a person affected by the crimes of the Russian Federation in the center.

Olga Reshetylova, coordinator of the Media Initiative for Human Rights, presented a map of places where civilian hostages are held in the Russian Federation and emphasized that at least 1300 civilians are currently known to have been abducted and illegally held in Russian prisons and in unsuitable premises. In most cases, civilians are held together with prisoners of war.

ZMINA Human Rights Advisor Natalia Okhotnikova emphasized that the Russians are applying a systematic and coordinated policy of forcible abductions of active citizens (volunteers, local government representatives, activists, teachers, journalists) and torture of these people to suppress the pro-Ukrainian movement in the occupied territories.

“The Russian military and representatives of the so-called ‘DPR’ and ‘LPR’ often torture by electric shock, suffocation or pouring water down the throat of bound civilians, beating them with various objects and using improvised means. ZMINA recorded at least two cases of forced intravenous administration of unknown substances. Women in detention facilities are under constant threat of sexualized violence (electric shocks to the breasts, forcing them to change clothes in the presence of male guards, intimidation by sexual violence against them or their family members),” Okhotnikova said.

According to her, the Russian military also often use mock executions or force civilians to watch the torture of their loved ones or cellmates. The human rights activist adds that there are at least two cases of civilian men from Kherson region who were abducted and tortured, and died in custody shortly afterward.

“To conceal these crimes, the Russians took their bodies, and families are still searching for a possible burial site to pay their last respects to their husbands and sons. This causes additional pain and suffering. The scale and systematic nature of such crimes by the Russians, as well as signs that these crimes are part of a common plan and coordinated policy of the Russians to destroy the Ukrainian population, gives grounds to assert that these actions are crimes against humanity, and this should be given a proper legal assessment by the International Criminal Court,” Okhotnikova is convinced.

She called on the audience to remember that each and every one of the victims is not a number, but a person who must make sure that Russian crimes are punished and stopped. Natalia Okhotnikova also appealed to representatives of embassies and missions to continue to speak about the crimes of the Russians on all possible platforms and events.

During his speech, Truth Hounds’ legal director Dmytro Koval described how Rosatom turned Zaporizhzhia NPP into a torture chamber and said that the Russian military used brutal torture against the plant’s employees: beatings, electric shocks using a Soviet TA-57 (Tapik) phone and a megonometer, suffocation, mock executions, forcing them to dig their own graves, and threats of rape against the employees themselves or their family members.

“All of these crimes are combined with the detention of civilians in unsuitable premises without ventilation and access to water,” Koval adds.

Volodymyr Yavorskyy, expert at the Center for Civil Liberties, added that their organization has collected data on at least four thousand civilians who have been abducted and held in the occupied territories and in Russia. According to him, most of these civilians are held without any documents, without means of communication and without the possibility to contact their relatives and inform them where they are. He also pointed out that Russia thinks in medieval terms – along with effective control over the territory, it imposes Russian passports on Ukrainian citizens, which is a violation of international humanitarian law.

Aryeh Mora, representative of the Ukrainian Legal Advisory Group, noted that the state has problems on the way to justice, namely, significant gaps in Ukrainian legislation that make it impossible to investigate crimes against humanity and bring perpetrators to justice.

“It is almost impossible to bring to justice not only the actual perpetrator, but also his commanding officer who gave the criminal order or developed the policy of applying civilian torture or other serious crimes. The non-ratification of the Rome Statute significantly limits the possibility of bringing all perpetrators to justice. This moves us further away from achieving the goal of justice. Ukraine is making a lot of efforts to investigate, but the law enforcement system is not ready for such a large number of crimes and the amount of information that needs to be documented and investigated,” the expert said.

As a reminder, the 22nd session of the Assembly of States Parties to the International Criminal Court (ICC) started in New York at the UN headquarters on December 4, where they, together with observer states, invited states, international and regional organizations and representatives of civil society, will discuss the main challenges facing the Rome Statute.

Also at the current session, the States Parties will adopt resolutions on issues related to the functioning of the Court and the Victims Trust Fund (TFV), including their respective budgets and cooperation. The US delegation will elect six new ICC judges at the Assembly session.

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