Tracking War Crimes in Ukraine with the Truth Hounds
By Brian Dooley
Set up in 2014, Ukrainian human rights organization Truth Hounds has built an international reputation for its superb work in documenting war crimes in the eastern parts of the country.
In the last eight years, it has made more than 50 fact-finding trips to document war crimes and crimes against humanity in Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea, produced volumes of hard evidence, and prepared three extensive submissions to the International Criminal Court in the Hague. But the last three weeks has seen its team challenged like never before.
Last month’s invasion by the Russian military has meant a worldwide focus on war crimes, and reports of attacks on medical facilities and civilian neighborhoods has put massive pressure on local experts to produce accurate and reliable information fast.
Dmytro Koval has been with Truth Hounds since 2017, and told Human Rights First, “there’s suddenly a lot of evidence to sift through. We specialize in finding the truth in the chaos by collecting stories and data, and we preserve evidence because it can get lost or deleted.”
The organization reacted incredibly quickly to the initial Russian strikes. “We had documented and publicly reported on the first attacks within five and a half hours,” Koval says. Truth Hounds is now posting daily reports on its website, including some themed on crimes such as the use of human shields or on attacks that cause environmental damage.
Koval is one of the organization’s core team of about seven, who are aided by a dozen or so others. They assess new evidence constantly arriving. “When we look at incidents of shelling of civilians we have to try and determine if it looks like an intentional attack, or an indiscriminate attack, or what it is,” he says. “And we try to examine what’s happened through an International Humanitarian Law perspective. Our task for the coming weeks is to corroborate open-source evidence by interviewing witnesses.”
In recent years the organization has also trained Ukrainian government prosecutors on how to advance investigations, and has seen real success. ”Submissions made by Truth Hounds have resulted in new investigations, and we’ve helped change how the prosecutors see the whole issue, how they protect witnesses and engage with victims, and we’ve helped them to see the value of international law in how they deal with these things,” says Koval. But now the focus is back on documentation.
There is an unimaginable amount of data constantly coming in, and other local NGOs are adjusting their focus to help with the workload. A new coalition of 16 Ukrainian activist organizations has been formed to address the crisis.
The Ukraine 5am coalition was set up “to protect the victims of Russian armed aggression in Ukraine and to bring to justice the top leadership of the Russian Federation, as well as the direct perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
Truth Hounds’ experience is central to the coalition’s work -- training volunteers and journalists documenting eyewitness testimony.
“We’re collecting evidence that can one day be used by Ukrainian courts, or the International Criminal Court, or by foreign courts,” says Koval.
The investigators know that justice might not be swift, but that it’s possible to see war criminals in court in the future. Koval says, “Right now, we’re focusing on some of the gravest violations, and the chains of command to trace the perpetrators and the commanders.”