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December 13, 2022

Holding Russia to account for its atrocities in Ukraine

A neighbor comforts Natalia Vlasenko April 4 in her garden in Bucha, Ukraine, after her husband, Pavlo Vlasenko, and grandson, Dmytro Chaplyhin, were killed by Russia’s forces. (© Vadim Ghirda/AP Images)

Evidence is mounting that, as part of Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s forces have targeted civilians and unlawfully deported citizens of Ukraine from their own country. Targeting civilians and the unlawful deportation of civilians are war crimes. “The aggression against Ukraine is a manifest violation of the UN Charter,” Beth Van Schaack, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for Global Criminal Justice, said November 21.

Van Schaack pointed to reports of civilians being killed execution-style, with their hands bound, and “horrific accounts of gender-based violence,” including sexual violence against women and children. Ukraine’s Office of the Prosecutor General has identified thousands of incidents that may constitute war crimes, she said.

Witnesses and survivors in Bucha, Ozera, Babyntsi and Zdvyzhivka told The Associated Press and the Public Broadcasting Service’s Frontline documentary series that Russia’s soldiers tortured and killed people on the slightest suspicion they might be helping Ukraine’s military.

Nadia Voznenko cries next to the coffin of her son, Andriy Voznenko. The Washington Post reported that Russia’s soldiers tortured and killed him, then left his body near a wooded area in Zdvyzhivka, Ukraine. Criminal specialists later exhumed and examined his body to confirm he had been tortured. The family buried him in his hometown of Ozera, Ukraine, April 28. (© Wojciech Grzedzinski/The Washington Post/Getty Images)


Russia’s apparent breaches of international law include the construction of a vast transnational infrastructure of filtration operations. Up to 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens have been forcibly transferred to parts of Ukraine that are controlled or occupied by Russia or deported to Russia itself through these operations.

Ukrainian citizens subjected to filtration are interrogated. They then suffer one of three fates: be permitted to remain in Russia-controlled areas of Ukraine, be deported to Russia or remain in detention, according to Van Schaack.

She noted Conflict Observatory findings using satellite imagery that suggest mass graves in the vicinity of one of the filtration sites. Credible reports also indicate thousands of Ukraine’s children have been abducted and then adopted by families within Russia.

“Russia’s deplorable tactic of forcible transfer and deportation is a war crime,” said Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International.

International probes

Prosecutors from Ukraine and around the world are determined to bring the perpetrators of such acts to justice.

Van Schaack said the United States supports international efforts to investigate and examine atrocities in Ukraine, which include:

  • The International Criminal Court’s ongoing investigation.
  • A U.N. Commission of Inquiry focusing on violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law.
  • An investigative team through the Eurojust network.

These entities and prosecutors share information and strategies, Van Schaack said.

The U.S. initiated the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group, in which the U.S. partners with the EU and the U.K. to provide expert assistance to Ukraine on the investigation and prosecution of atrocity crimes.

“The prosecution of war crimes in Ukraine is one of the most vital international justice challenges of our time,” said Georgetown Law Dean William M. Treanor.

Municipal workers remove the body of a man who died in a house in Bucha, Ukraine, April 7. The Associated Press said Russia’s military ran a “cleansing” operation in Bucha that included torturing and executing civilians suspected of assisting Ukraine’s troops. (© Vadim Ghirda/AP Images)


Eli Rosenbaum was appointed to lead the U.S. Justice Department’s efforts to investigate war crimes in Ukraine. Van Schaack noted that attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, torture and executions in Ukraine follow a pattern. “What we’re seeing in these images, videos, and reports, including witness accounts, suggest that these atrocities are not the acts of rogue units or individuals,” she said. “Rather, they are part of a deeply disturbing pattern of reports of abuse across all areas where we’re seeing Russia’s forces engage.”