In October 2023, some 20 months after Russian forces invaded Ukraine, the UN reported a mounting civilian death toll, as well as a multitude of human rights violations.
In its report, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine painted a bleak picture regarding human rights in the country. With the Russian invasion approaching its 20th month, the report indicated that Ukrainian civilians continued to pay a horrendous price, with almost 10,000 reported dead and tens of thousands more reported injured.
The UN report went on to suggest that, over the preceding six months, the conflict had claimed the lives of six Ukrainian civilians each day, on average. The report revealed that missile attacks against grain and agricultural facilities, vital infrastructure, and residential areas—often located far from the frontlines—continued to reap devastation, creating fear in communities up and down the country.
Meanwhile, in areas occupied by Russian forces, civilians faced arbitrary detention, torture, sexual violence, and ill-treatment, with hundreds imprisoned and their families unaware of their fate.
Danielle Bell, who leads the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, explained that the UN’s findings highlighted the war in Ukraine’s deadly toll on civilians, with an average of six people dying and 20 more suffering injuries every single day. Bell explained that in the six months covered by the report, almost 4,000 civilians had been injured and over 1,000 had died.
In Ukraine, the war has forced many people below the poverty line, their plight exacerbated by broad social and economic harm caused by attacks on agricultural facilities and vital infrastructure. One example of this was the destruction of the Khakovka dam in early 2023, triggering major flooding and culminating in an environmental disaster that experts warn will have a long-term adverse impact on the well-being and rights of local communities.
War has wreaked havoc
As Bell pointed out, the war has wreaked havoc, affecting millions of Ukrainians, including children who will have to live with the legacy of horrific human loss, physical destruction, and environmental damage for many years to come.
In October 2022, the UN appointed a special rapporteur tasked with monitoring the human rights situation in Russia. This followed 12 months of advocacy work by Russian human rights organizations. An independent expert backed by a team of assistants, a UN special rapporteur’s role involves informing and advising the UN regarding human rights within a particular country. To appoint one against a powerful nation like Russia came as an unprecedented move, highlighting the UN’s concerns regarding reports of Russians routinely facing violations of their constitutional rights, with the war in Ukraine further exacerbating the situation.
Even before Russia invaded the Ukraine, thousands of Russian citizens were arrested and detained on politically motivated charges each year. Experts warn that the regime’s “conveyor belt of repressions” has picked up the pace, swiftly shutting down any and all criticism or attempts at protest.
Parallels to atrocities in Rwanda
In April 2022, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for Russia to be suspended from the Human Rights Council. At the vote, which took place on the 28th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, the Ukrainian ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya drew parallels between the atrocities in Rwanda and events unfolding in Ukraine, urging member states to support the resolution. He pointed out that in Bucha, along with dozens of other Ukrainian cities, thousands of peaceful residents had been killed, raped, tortured, abducted, and robbed by Russian Army officials.
Kyslytsya pointed to the atrocities unfolding in Ukraine as a stark illustration of how far the Russian Federation had gone from its initial declarations regarding human rights. He also warned that the genocide in Rwanda was largely attributable to the indifference of the international community, pointing out that the UN had failed to respond to warnings from the General Assembly and UN Security Council a year before the tragedy unfolded.
Human rights violations
In February 2023, UN Security General António Guterres condemned the “massive violations of human rights” in Ukraine, asserting that the Russian invasion had “unleashed widespread death, destruction, and displacement.” Guterres pointed in particular to attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, and the many casualties and terrible suffering it had caused. He also cited cases of sexual violations, arbitrary detention, and violations of prisoners’ rights, explaining that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been “too often misused and abused” and that while “some governments chip away at it,” others “use a wrecking ball.”
In September 2023, Mariana Katzarova, the UN’s special rapporteur, indicated that human rights in Russia had “significantly deteriorated” since the start of the war in Ukraine. Her report, which was independent of another UN-backed probe that accused Russia of war crimes in Ukraine, cited “credible reports” of a litany of human rights violations, including allegations of rape and sexual violence, torture, and threats of sexual abuse by law enforcement officers. None of the cases had been officially investigated, according to the report.