The United Nations has said its investigators have concluded that Russia has committed war crimes in Ukraine, including bombing civilian areas, numerous executions, torture and horrific sexual violence.
The UN has made investigating human rights violations during the war a priority and in May the UN’s highest human rights body mandated a team of experts to work in the country.
Since then, UN investigators have risked their lives to gather evidence of crimes committed against civilians, including in areas still under threat from enemy forces or where mines are located.
The team of three independent experts presented their first oral update to the UN Human Rights Council on Friday, after it launched initial investigations into the Kiev, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy regions, adding that it would expand its investigation.
A day before the seven-month anniversary of the Russian invasion of his neighboring country, Erik Mose, the head of the investigative team, told the council that, based on the evidence collected by the investigative committee about Ukraine, “it has been concluded that war crimes have been committed. in Ukraine”.
The team of researchers visited 27 towns and settlements, as well as graves and detention and torture centers; more than 150 victims and witnesses interviewed; and met with interest groups and government officials.
Mose said the team was especially “affected by the high number of executions in the areas we visited” and the frequent “visible signs of executions on bodies, such as hands tied behind the back, gunshot wounds to the head and slit throats.” ”.
He added that it was investigating such deaths in 16 cities and settlements, and had received credible allegations regarding many more cases it would try to document. The investigators had also received “consistent reports of ill-treatment and torture carried out during unlawful detention,” the council was told.
In the settlements of Bucha, Hostomel and Borodianka, which had been occupied by Russian troops for about a month, Ukrainian researchers found dozens of mass graves where the bodies of tortured and murdered civilians were buried.
Since the Russians withdrew from the area, a group of young volunteers have worked tirelessly to exhume the bodies and send them to forensic doctors collecting evidence of crimes committed by Russian troops.
Some of the victims had told investigators that they had been transferred to Russia and held in prison for weeks. Others had “disappeared” after such transfers. “Conversations described beatings, electric shocks and forced nudity, as well as other types of violations in such detention centers,” Mose said.
Mose said the team also “processed two incidents of ill-treatment against soldiers of the Russian Federation by Ukrainian forces”, adding that “although few in number, such cases are still the subject of our attention”.
He said investigators had also documented cases of sexual and gender-based violence, with Russian soldiers found to be the perpetrators in some cases.
“There are examples of cases where family members were forced to witness the crimes,” he said. “In the cases we examined, the ages of victims of sexual and gender-based violence ranged from four to 82 years.”
The commission had documented a wide range of crimes against children, Mose added, including children who had been “raped, tortured and unlawfully imprisoned.”
In April, forensic doctors told the Guardian they had found evidence that some women had been raped before being killed by Russian troops. “We already have a few cases indicating that these women had been raped before being shot,” Vladyslav Perovskyi, a Ukrainian forensic doctor who has performed dozens of autopsies on people from Bucha, Irpin and Borodianka, told The Guardian.
At least two men on a list of accused Russian war criminals released by Ukrainian prosecutors are charged with assault and rape.
In his report to the council, Mose also pointed to “the use by the Russian Federation of high-area effect explosive weapons in populated areas,” which he said was “a source of immense damage and suffering to civilians.”
The UN stressed that a number of attacks the team investigated “had been carried out indiscriminately between civilians and combatants”, including attacks with cluster munitions, which were banned by most of the world under a 2008 treaty.
Since the invasion of Moscow began, Russian forces have been accused of using a number of illegal weapons that killed hundreds of civilians in Ukraine’s Kiev region, including extremely powerful unguided bombs in populated areas, which destroyed at least eight civilian buildings.
According to evidence, cluster munitions were released in areas where there were no military personnel and no military infrastructure.
The commission’s work could ultimately contribute to the work of international criminal court prosecutors who could bring charges for war crimes in Ukraine, although it remains uncertain whether Russia or other alleged perpetrators will ever face trial.
In a separate development, on Friday, Ukrainian officials said they had exhumed about 436 bodies from a cemetery in the recently recaptured city of Izium and that at least 30 of them showed signs of torture.
Mose said: “Obviously this is a new incident, but we definitely plan to look at the Izium event as well.”