More than 75,000 war crimes committed by the Russian army since the start of the widespread invasion in February last year have so far been registered by Ukrainian authorities. Investigators and prosecutors as well as international investigative bodies are working flat out to secure evidence and interview witnesses. But the sheer magnitude of the crimes alone shows that it could probably take decades to actually bring the majority of the guilty to justice.
The investigators are also supported by more than 30 Ukrainian non-governmental organizations that formed a group called the “Ukraine 5 AM Coalition” a year ago. Its goal is to give a voice to the victims of Russian aggression and to hold accountable the outright war criminals as well as the top leadership of the Russian Federation. Some member organizations of the association have been dealing with this since the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014. Now they are sharing their experiences with their colleagues from civil society, but also with representatives of the investigating authorities.
“No country has ever been able to prepare to solve all war crimes. In Ukraine, too, there were no such experiences until 2014, so civil society intervened here,” says Roman Avramenko, head of the Truth Hounds organization, which documents war crimes.
Own contacts as sources
According to him, the partnership between officials and human rights activists is going well. The NGOs collect testimonies from crime victims through their own hotlines and on-site, exchange information with government agencies through a specially set up electronic database, and in some places even conduct their own investigations. Sometimes they even train Ukrainian investigators to recognize what counts as war crimes in the first place.
The chairwoman of the board of directors of the Center for Human Rights ZMINA, Tetyana Peschonchyk, cites examples of forced deportations that neither law enforcement officials nor the victims themselves recognize as war crimes at first glance. “ZMINA documented 233 cases of deportation during field missions, for example in villages in the Kharkiv region on the border with Russia. And in conversations with the people, we found that hardly any of those affected had reported to the law enforcement authorities. Often people even understand not that they committed a crime because the deportations were disguised as evacuations,” she says.
The situation is even more complicated for journalists and activists who belonged to the resistance movement in the Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine and are imprisoned there, says Olha Skrypnyk, head of the organization Crimean Human Rights Group. You often only find out about the disappearance of such people from their relatives. Often there are no official charges against the detainees, which means that they hardly have any legal protection. Therefore, NGOs are almost the only ones who manage to locate such prisoners through their own contacts and networks in Russian prisons.
“We already know of at least 110 people who are in a new, specially equipped detention center in Simferopol (in the Russian-occupied Crimea, editor’s note) are located, but the ability to locate these people and check their situation is severely limited. Russia does not want to officially recognize many as prisoners of war, which makes their release practically impossible,” said the human rights activist.
From aggressive calls to ecocide
Oksana Romanyuk, head of the Institute for Mass Information (IMI), which has documented crimes against journalists for many years and has recorded more than 500 crimes against media representatives since the Russian invasion began, says the wrong term “disinformation” has been used for years has.
“When we talk about Russian propaganda, we forget that in reality it is an extreme form of hate speech. This year it has become extremely aggressive: there are already direct calls for genocide, for bombing of civilian objects, for assassinations Ukrainians, and all of this can even be traced back to Putin’s doctrines,” she explains.
IMI attempts to criminalize cases of aggressive propaganda, but notes that international law does not yet include such a crime. “I realize that these are crimes against humanity, that they are crimes of aggression, but this dimension of such a crime is not described anywhere. Therefore, we face the challenge of ensuring that these propagandists receive a just punishment, including internationally level,” emphasizes Romanyuk.
Ukrainian ecologists who are trying to document the crime of ecocide, which is also rather unusual for international law, face a similar problem.
What to do with the evidence
NGOs strive to establish effective cooperation with law enforcement agencies. However, due to the peculiarities of criminal procedural law, materials collected by them still cannot be easily incorporated into official criminal investigations. “Adding a YouTube video or a journalist’s article to the file, for example, requires a variety of procedures, and courts often class them as inadmissible evidence,” says Olga Reshetylova, co-founder of Ukraine’s “Media Initiative for Human Rights.”
The organizations often also receive photos and videos of those affected via social networks. But how can you ensure that the image material is authentic and that the person transmitting it is also trustworthy? To solve this problem, the Bar Association of Ukraine promotes the mobile app “eyeWitness to Atrocities”, developed by the International Bar Association (IBA) for recording atrocities. The application makes it impossible to falsify photo or video evidence because it simultaneously records the coordinates of the shooting location and uploads all data to the secure IBA servers, assures Dmytro Hladkyj, a lawyer from Zaporizhia.
Adaptation from the Ukrainian: Markian Ostapchuk