10:21 31.05.2022


On documenting international crimes committed by the Russian occupiers

11 min read
On documenting international crimes committed by the Russian occupiers

Yevgeniy Zakharov, Board Chairman of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, Director of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group 



The Kharkiv Human Rights Group (KHRG) is documenting international crimes (genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes) allegedly committed by the Russian occupiers during the full-scale Russian-Ukrainian war. The article describes our approach to documentation, briefly describes the database where the collected information is entered, legal aid provided to victims of crime, means of publishing results and communication with victims and witnesses.
Generalization of the collected information on Kharkiv and Kharkiv region for the period from February 24 to March 5 is provided here, for the first month of the war – here. We have documented this month 562 episodes of 12 types of alleged war crimes, which are classified under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. According to the data we collected this month, at least 272 civilians were killed and at least 392 civilians were injured. At least 909 buildings, structures and other infrastructural objects of various purposes were destroyed or damaged, including 485 residential buildings.
In total, throughout Ukraine, we have seen numerous episodes showing signs of 25 types of crimes against humanity and war crimes. See list and brief description of each crime (in Ukrainian).
Our approach to documenting international crimes now extends to the whole of Ukraine with the Global Initiative «Breaking the Vicious Circle of Russia Impunity for Its War Crimes», which includes the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, the Center for Civil Liberties and 25 other Ukrainian human rights organizations.

1. Methodology

The KHPG began documenting international crimes in the Kharkiv region two weeks after the start of a full-scale Russian-Ukrainian war. Our approach to documentation is as follows. We have divided all the days, starting on February 24, among 7 documentators, and for each day the documentary collects information from all possible sources about the events that took place on that day, if the event shows signs of crimes against humanity and / or war crimes under the Rome Statute. International Criminal Court, and prepares a chronicle of events for the day. For each event, the approximate location and time of the event (or the time interval when it occurred), as well as the sources from which the information about it was taken, are indicated. Daily chronicles are published on the KHPG portal https://khpg.org in the section "War Crimes", while all vulnerable information is removed for publication: exact addresses, personal data, etc. The most important feature of the chronicles is the maximum completeness and reliability of the information on the basis of which they are formed. Then, based on the information about each event, one or more episodes are formed (if there are several objects of crime in one event), each of which is entered into the database (DB) according to a certain template using the most complete information about this episode. Each episode is accompanied by location, relevant media files and links to Internet resources, as well as personal data of witnesses and victims of crime, if known.
Sources of information for compiling daily chronicles and entering information into the database are:
a) Daily official reports on the situation in the war zone, on human losses, destruction, etc., reports on other information resources, including local, on the consequences of hostilities, including sites and Telegram channels of regional administrations, regional police departments , the State Emergency Service, the regional prosecutor's office and others;
b) Messages and reports of the International Mission of the UN Higher Commissioner for Human Rights in Ukraine, reports of international and national human rights organizations;
c) Information resources that regularly publish information about events in the zone of military conflict, in particular, Telegram channels;
d) Notification of witnesses and victims of crimes; these testimonials are collected in the form of answers to questions of the google-form which corresponds to a template of record in a database;
e) Media files related to the episodes: photos, video blogs on the YouTube platform, short videos shot for TikTok and Instagram, etc.;
g) interviews with witnesses and victims.
Sources of information are stored: web pages – in the Web-archive, posts on social networks or messengers through screenshots that are indexed (for example, the name of the screenshot is linked to the episode number).

2. Database

The KHPG database is a relational database based on a free MySQL database management system. Developed by KHPG software allows you to check the correctness of writing home addresses, find and specify repetitions of the same episodes and protect personal data by automatically encoding and storing them in the database in encrypted form. Upon entering the access key, all personal data is decoded and can be processed.
For each episode, the location, media files and links, personalities, date, or probable time period when the event took place are determined.

The software provides a selection of episodes for a given period of time, location and type of events, both individually and in combination of any set of these features, and allows you to generate reports showing summary information in tabular form (distribution of episodes over time) location, type of loss and type of event) and graphically – on maps based on GOOGLEMAP.

3. Analysis of documented information

Database queries provide an opportunity to determine human losses within the selected location, obtain the number of episodes distributed by documentators, statistics on the classification of probable crimes and / or the status of the object and / or type of event at the selected location.
Thus, the summary of events in the Kharkiv region during the first month of the war showed that according to our data, at least 272 civilians were killed, at least 392 civilians were injured, and at least 909 buildings, structures and other infrastructure were damaged. for various purposes, including 485 residential buildings. According to the analyzed data, 10 humanitarian corridors for evacuation of people and import of humanitarian cargo were announced in Kharkiv region. Of these, only 4 corridors were fully or partially operational.

Thus, in our opinion, for the first 30 days of the full-scale Russian-Ukrainian war in the Kharkiv region, 12 types of alleged war crimes were committed, which in general can be described as follows:

  • willful killing;
  • willfully causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or health;
  • illegal, senseless and large-scale destruction of property;
  • taking of hostages;
  • intentionally directing attacks on civilians;
  • intentionally directing attacks on civilian objects;
  • intentionally directing attacks on a humanitarian aid depot, humanitarian convoy, humanitarian mission or humanitarian corridor;
  • intentionally launching attacks resulting in accidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects or widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment;
  • attacking or bombarding, by whatever means, towns, villages, dwellings or buildings which are undefended and which are not military objectives;
  • intentionally directing attacks that have led to damage or destruction of historical monuments, hospitals, religious buildings, educational institutions, science, art;
  • the use of weapons or means of war which cause undue damage or unnecessary suffering or are indiscriminate;
  • obstruction of humanitarian missions in the delivery of water and food.

In total, across the country, we observed 25 types of alleged crimes against humanity and war crimes during this period. The number of these crimes, their recurrence in different regions of Ukraine gives every reason to characterize the actions of the Russian occupiers as systematic and large-scale.

4. Apply this approach to the whole country

On March 24, the Center for Civil Liberties, the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, and the KHPG announced the launch of the Global Initiative «Breaking the Vicious Circle of Russia Impunity for Its War Crimes», which was joined by 24 other Ukrainian human rights organizations. This Global Initiative, among other things, extends the above-described procedure for documenting international crimes committed by the Russian occupiers to all regions of the country. KHPG conducts training of documentators, checks the correctness of daily chronicles and the correctness of entering information into the database, advises other members of the Initiative.
It should be noted that for some regions, where the fighting took place within the settlements and with which there was no contact for a long time, there is very little information in open sources (Mariupol, Kyiv region, Chernihiv and others). Therefore, the focus in documenting crimes is shifted to reporting witnesses and victims of crime and collecting evidence in the form of filling out google forms. For such regions, documentators first collect as complete information as possible and enter it into a database, and only then compile daily chronicles.
At 6.00 am on April 9, 1256 episodes were entered into the database, including 907 episodes related to artillery shelling (bombing) of civilian objects, 70 episodes – use of small arms, 17 – explosive devices, 22 episodes – disappearances, 21 episodes – illegal imprisonment, 13 episodes – premeditated murder, and other events. 735 episodes concern Kharkiv region, 521 episodes – other regions of Ukraine.

5. Interviews with witnesses and victims

In the dialogue with the victims of crimes and witnesses, the documentators specify the date, place, circumstances of the events of the crimes, personal data and contacts of witnesses, etc. But this is not enough. Witnesses and victims should be interviewed to tell their stories: whether they believed in the possibility of a full-scale war, how they met and spent February 24, how they saved their relatives and themselves, how they went to safer places, who helped them at home, on the road, in a new place and so on. Such lengthy first-person interviews will provide an opportunity to establish the "human dimension" of war, the perception of war crimes, the impact of war on the lives of individuals or society as a whole, demonstrate the value of freedom, and preserve the memory of war. English-language versions of the interview will show the world the tragedy of Ukraine and at the same time demonstrate the best features of Ukrainians: the desire for freedom, courage, mutual assistance, solidarity.
At the same time, in our experience, interviews contain references to war crimes, information about which can then be extracted from the text of the interview and used for documentation.
The interview is conducted by a journalist or psychologist, recorded by a videographer, and then prepared for publication. It is also possible to conduct a remote interview without video recording. The decoder is preparing a text version of the interview. If it was provided in Russian, it is translated into Ukrainian, and an English version is being prepared. The video and both language versions, accompanied by photo illustrations, are available on the KHPG website. A total of 12 interviews have already been conducted. Samples of interviews about the events in Mariupol, Kharkiv and Mykolaiv can be viewed herehere and here (in Ukrainian).

6. Legal assistance to victims

Legal assistance to victims of these crimes is inextricably linked to the documentation of international crimes. Such assistance motivates the victims to provide information about the crimes, to agree to give an interview about what happened, despite the fact that compensation for the damage may not be made soon.
We have announced that KHP lawyers are preparing crime reports on behalf of victims of crime and sending them to law enforcement agencies in order to open criminal proceedings and obtain the status of a victim in criminal proceedings and extract from the Unified Register of Pre-trial Investigations. It is proposed to fill out a google form, after which the KHPG lawyer in dialogue with the victim clarifies all the necessary circumstances, examines the existing evidence and prepares a statement of the crime with all the necessary attachments, which he submits to the local police station. You can also file a crime report with all the attachments through the single platform https://warcrimes.gov.ua/, created by the Office of the Prosecutor General, if the status of a victim in criminal proceedings and a copy of the extract from the ERDR will be provided.

7. Perspectives

The war continues, and every day we learn about new atrocities by the Russian occupiers. The members of the Global Initiative are tasked with gathering as much information as possible about crimes committed since the beginning of the war, documenting these crimes in a database, and continuing such documentation until the end of the war. This will provide an opportunity to summarize the data collected, obtain integrated statistics on crimes, assess their scale and systematicity, see the same actions of the occupiers in different regions, clearly acting on the same orders, collect primary data to prepare allegations of crimes on behalf of victims.
At the same time, the limitations of this approach to documentation are obvious: it does not provide the opportunity to process legal evidence of crimes in accordance with the standards of international institutions. In order to prepare cases for consideration by the International Criminal Court in the light of these standards, the Global Initiative will need to work with international human rights organizations with experience in preparing ICC cases and use another database to provide much greater opportunities for legal cases. It is necessary to build this cooperation right now.