Responsibly Researching War Crimes in Ukraine
By Brian Dooley
War crimes in Ukraine are now so horribly common that one of the local groups tracking them documents incidents virtually every day. The latest report from Truth Hounds details torture, killings, sexual violence, attacks on schools and churches, the forced removal of people into camps, and other crimes.
We’ve worked with Truth Hounds since the organization began in 2014, and have been with their staff during research trips to Ukraine since the Russian invasion in February of this year. In documenting these war crimes, they and others are undertaking a colossal, historic human rights project. As we reported in May, much of Ukraine’s public is mobilized into collecting evidence.
While the international community’s focus is on the prospect of prosecuting perpetrators, there are other aspects of war crimes that don’t get the same resources or attention.
Dunja Mijatović, Commissioner for Human Rights for the Council of Europe, this week issued a clear-sighted memo on the human rights consequences of the war in Ukraine. She outlines the panoply of war crimes committed, and explains how they affect particularly vulnerable populations, including older people, children, and those with disabilities.
Her memo offers a very useful overview of the various national and international accountability mechanisms currently in play, the need to for these efforts to be coordinated, and the challenges confronting those trying to secure evidence that could one day be used in court.
She rightly notes that “The interests of victims and their families should be the primary consideration guiding accountability efforts within all available justice mechanisms, from the start of investigations to ensuring proper reparations… Treating victims, their families, and witnesses of crimes with sensitivity and compassion, ensuring their protection and caring for their needs in the context of investigations should be another priority.”
Others have reported on the lack of psychosocial support for survivors, particularly for survivors of war-related sexual violence. Mijatović notes in her memo that by June 3 the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) had received reports of 124 alleged acts of war-related sexual violence across Ukraine, 97 of which allegedly involved women and girls, 19 men, and seven boys. The number of attacks is likely far higher because, her memo states, “victims and witnesses of sexual violence may be reluctant to speak about their ordeal or to file complaints out of fear or because of trauma or the social stigma associated with sexual violence.”
Not all reporting on human rights violations is done responsibly or ethically, even by those who mean well. Because “details of some cases of war-related sexual violence, including the victims’ identity have been made public on social media or in the press,” Mijatović emphasizes “the importance for journalists and media actors to always report ethically on cases of war-related sexual violence and always respect the victims’ rights and dignity.”
While there are various guides for the media and others on how to interview and document people’s experiences, including on how to avoid retraumatization, none is specifically focused on Ukraine.
Meanwhile, those collecting evidence and reporting war crimes across the country are producing an ever-growing list of cases. Ukraine’s Prosecutor General estimates over 20,000 “crimes of aggression and war crimes” have been committed. International researchers and journalists can play their part by reporting responsibly and ethically.