UN Human Rights Ukraine released reports on treatment of prisoners of war and overall human rights situation in Ukraine
24 March 2023
Statement by the Head of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine Matilda Bogner, delivered at the launch of OHCHR’s 35th report on the human rights situation in Ukraine and a thematic report on the treatment of prisoners of war.
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. On behalf of the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, I would like to welcome those present here and those joining us online.
As many of you will know, our job is to document violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Today, we are launching two reports: one is on the treatment of prisoners of war and the other covers the overall human rights situation in Ukraine over a 6 month period up to 31 January 2023.
IMPACT OF HOSTILITIES ON THE CIVILIAN POPULATION
The war has come at a horrendous human cost. As of this week, we have documented that more than 8,000 civilians have been killed and almost 14,000 injured. More than 90 per cent were caused by missiles, explosive weapons or mines and explosive remnants of war. The actual figures are unfortunately considerably higher.
RIGHT TO LIFE, LIBERTY AND SECURITY OF PERSONS
In occupied areas of Ukraine, we have documented summary executions and attacks on individual civilians by Russian armed forces and the pervasive use of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances.
Since 24 February 2022, we have documented 621 cases of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention of civilians by Russian armed forces. Among the 127 that we interviewed after their release, 90 per cent reported that members of the Russian security forces tortured and ill-treated them while in detention, in some cases including sexual violence. Five of these civilians were boys, between 14 and 17 years old, who had been forcibly disappeared by Russian armed forces and subjected to ill-treatment or torture.
Since 24 February 2022, we have documented 91 cases of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention committed by Ukrainian security forces. Of the 73 victims we interviewed, 53 per cent had been tortured or ill-treated by members of Ukrainian armed forces and law enforcement agencies.
The prohibitions of torture and arbitrary deprivation of life are absolute. All perpetrators must be held to account, and victims and their relatives must enjoy the rights to remedy and truth. In this regard, we welcome the recent adoption by the Parliament of Ukraine of a law amending the Criminal Code to align national legislation with the UN Convention against Torture.
The horrendous human cost of the war is also evident in the cases of conflict-related sexual violence, which we have documented since 24 February last year. By 31 January this year, we had recorded 133 victims – comprising of 85 men, 45 women and 3 girls. 109 cases are attributable to Russian armed forces, Russian law enforcement authorities and penitentiary staff, and 24 cases are attributable to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), the Ukrainian police, and Ukrainian civilians or members of territorial defence forces. Sexual violence frequently occurred when civilians or prisoners of war were detained, as well as in residential areas that were controlled by Russian armed forces.
We also documented transfers of civilians to areas in occupied territory or to the Russian Federation, some of which may amount to forced transfers or deportations. These transfers include children and adults who lived in social care institutions and unaccompanied children from parts of Donetsk, Kharkiv, Kherson, Kyiv and Odesa regions while they were occupied by the Russian Federation or temporarily controlled by Russian armed forces.
PRISONERS OF WAR
I will turn now to our report on the treatment of prisoners of war, during all stages of captivity – from initial capture, to transit and then places of internment.
Our team interviewed more than 400 prisoners of war, approximately 200 on each side. Ukraine provided us with unimpeded confidential access to official places of internment of Russian prisoners of war. The Russian Federation did not give us access. However, we were able to carry out confidential interviews with Ukrainian POWs upon their release.
I will start with Russian prisoners of war in the hands of Ukraine. We are deeply concerned about the summary execution of up to 25 Russian POWs and persons hors de combat by Ukrainian armed forces which we have documented. This was often perpetrated immediately upon capture on the battlefield. While we are aware of ongoing investigations by Ukrainian authorities into five cases involving 22 victims, we are not aware of any prosecutions of the perpetrators.
Almost half of the 229 Russian POWs who we interviewed spoke of being tortured or ill-treated by members of Ukrainian armed forces and the SBU, and to a lesser extent penitentiary staff. The majority of these cases occurred during the initial stages of apprehension and interrogation. POWs were beaten, shot in the legs, stabbed in their limbs, electrocuted, subjected to mock executions, threats of sexual violence or death. In permanent places of internment, such as pre-trial facilities, or the POW camp, reports of mistreatment were significantly less. We still received, however, complaints of beatings in some of these facilities in Dnipro, Vinnytsia and Kharkiv last spring.
Under international law, prisoners of war should not be held in closed confinement. While many remain in closed confinement in Ukraine, we welcome progress through the establishment of a POW camp in Lviv region in April 2022. We expect that the authorities are addressing complaints of humiliating and degrading treatment, which we received during our visit to the camp in December 2022. No camp has been established by the Russian Federation and POWs are regularly held in closed confinement.
In relation to the treatment of Ukrainian prisoners of war, we are also deeply concerned by the summary execution of 15 Ukrainian prisoners of war shortly after being captured by Russian armed forces. The Wagner Group military and security contractors perpetrated 11 of these executions.
Of the 203 Ukrainian POWs that we interviewed, 67 per cent fell into the hands of Russian forces after their surrender was negotiated by commanders. In these cases, we saw better protection for them at the beginning of their captivity.
However, the majority of Ukrainian prisoners of war who were captured during battle were tortured or ill-treated before internment. Members of Russian armed forces and the Russian Security Service tortured and ill-treated them to extract military information, to intimidate or humiliate them, or as a form of retribution. Forms of torture included beating, electrocution, or in several cases, being shot or stabbed in the legs. Mock executions were also common. The report describes one case, where a POW died from injuries within hours after he was tortured.
Conditions for many Ukrainian prisoners of war were shocking. A prisoner of war we spoke to told us – and I quote - “We were provided with just enough food to keep us alive”. Access to medical care was often insufficient, or unavailable, sometimes leading to dire consequences. The report documents that five of them died in internment reportedly due to the lack of medical attention.
The number of documented cases of torture and ill-treatment during internment in penitentiary facilities is shocking – more than 84 per cent endured such mistreatment. Penitentiary staff subjected prisoners of war to so-called ‘welcome beatings’ upon their arrival, beat and electrocuted them regularly during inspections in cells or while walking them around the facilities. Members of the Russian Federal Penitentiary Services (FSIN) and those in charge of many places of internment in Russian occupied territory systematically engaged in such practices against POWs. Former POWs told our colleagues that they dreaded weekly trips to the shower which inevitably ended in beatings and humiliation, often with sexual overtones. We documented that five POWs died from injuries sustained during torture in internment.
The cruelty and large-scale impact on civilians that we have seen over the last year will continue, unless both parties to the conflict ensure full compliance with international humanitarian law.
And when violations do occur, prompt action must be taken, first within the ranks of the army itself, and also through full and effective investigations and prosecutions of those responsible for the acts committed and those in command. The cases of summary executions, torture, ill-treatment, arbitrary detention and sexual violence must not be allowed to continue.
It is now over a year since the Russian Federation launched its armed attack against Ukraine, which has led to the violations that I have outlined today.
In the words of the High Commissioner, we appeal again “for respect for the sanctity of life, for human dignity, for respect for the principle of humanity”.