Victims’ rights in Ukraine must be central

The international community must develop a robust plan to support victims’ rights in Ukraine.

The international community must develop a robust plan to secure justice for victims of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, Amnesty International said today, marking one year since the invasion. 

On 24 February 2022, Russian military forces launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a move that Amnesty International called “an act of aggression and human rights catastrophe”. Since then, Russian forces have committed war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law, including extrajudicial executionsdeadly strikes on civilian infrastructure and places of shelterdeportations and forcible transfers of civilians, and unlawful killings committed on a vast scale through shelling of cities

While the invasion continues and the full extent of the crimes committed in Ukraine remains unknown, demands of victims and survivors for justice and their rights must be prioritized. The international community has a clear duty to ensure that those responsible for crimes under international law know that accountability and justice will triumph over impunity.  

“As Russian armed forces appear to be stepping up their offensive in Ukraine, the commitment to hold all perpetrators of human rights violations and war crimes to account is as urgent as ever,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General. 

Since the beginning of the conflict, Amnesty International has documented war crimes, including the targeting of critical civilian infrastructure and blocking of aid for civilians. Civilians in conflict-affected areas have been exposed to constant attacks and often cut off from water, electricity and heating. Many people living in Russian-occupied areas remain in dire need of humanitarian assistance or medical care, yet are being denied the right to travel to Ukrainian government-controlled territories.  

“The people of Ukraine have suffered unimaginable horror during this war of aggression over the last 12 months. Let us be clear: the hands of Vladimir Putin and his armed forces are stained with blood. Survivors deserve justice and reparations for all they have endured. The international community must stand steadfast to see this through to the end so that justice is served. One year in, it’s patently clear more must be done.” 

Tens of thousands of cases of war crimes have been filed, including of sexual and gender-based crimes, but the number of victims of the ongoing conflict will be much higher.   

Victims’ rights in Ukraine  

“In the wake of this conflict, countless human beings have been reduced to collateral damage. When a mortar hits, it doesn’t just tear through flesh, it takes livelihoods, destroys critical infrastructure and leaves many unable to exist in the rubble of their former lives,” said Agnès Callamard.  

The immediate response to the conflict has been encouraging, including a number of international and national-level investigations into crimes under international law committed in Ukraine, but comprehensive justice for Ukraine will only be achieved by providing meaningful justice and reparations to victims. This will only be possible if the international community provides robust and sustained support to existing justice mechanisms.  

There also needs to be consideration of new national and international mechanisms for more comprehensive justice – such as the welcome decision of the Human Rights Council to set up an independent commission of inquiry in March 2022. Ultimately these could strengthen the international justice response to the vast numbers of war crimes cases, as well as the crime of aggression which itself cannot be investigated by the ICC due to its jurisdictional limitations.  

“As well as ensuring the right mechanisms are in place, we must ensure those individuals responsible for crimes under international law are brought to justice and face the consequences of their unconscionable actions. This includes investigating senior military commanders and civilian leaders for war crimes and the crime of aggression under international law,” said Agnès Callamard.  

Building such cases can be complex, but it is imperative that investigations consider not only low-level direct perpetrators but those higher up the chain of command. Wherever trials are held, they must adhere to international human rights and fair-trial standards, with the full participation and consideration of survivors and their needs.  

“With wars raging in every corner of the world, inflicting untold civilian suffering, this must become a blueprint for all conflict. The initial unprecedented response of the international community, including the work of the International Criminal Court should be the minimum standard in the pursuit of international justice,” said Agnès Callamard. 

Sustained commitment and coordination is the only way forward  

“Time and time again, Amnesty International and other civil society groups have called for collective action, for people to come together for the greater good. This couldn’t be truer here. Every institution and authority involved in the pursuit of international justice, must work together to share insights and coordinate strategies, but also address gaps in expertise and capacity. Now is not a time for siloed working,” said Agnès Callamard. 

The international community must support fair, effective and impartial investigations and states should urge Ukraine to ratify the Rome Statute, bringing its national law into line with international legal standards related to international justice, and to strengthen cooperation with the ICC. Finally, justice for Ukraine demands that countries with universal jurisdiction statutes explore how these can serve justice for Ukrainians. 

Humanitarian support needed  

When offering support, the international community must identify the specific needs of at-risk groups – such as women, older people, people with disabilities, and children – as well as recognizing that many Ukrainians, including children, have been deported from Ukraine to Russia or forcibly transferred into Russian-occupied areas, and cannot return home safely. These particular groups must be among those prioritized, and all humanitarian assistance provided to them should be tailored to meet their specific needs.  

Cooperation with Ukrainian civil society organizations will also be essential in prioritizing survivors’ needs to ensure the practical application of economic and humanitarian aid. The international community must ensure this collaboration is done in such a way that it ensures transparency, effectiveness and victim-sensitivity throughout the processes focused on humanitarian assistance, recovery, justice and reparations. 

“Acknowledging the immense physical, psychological and economic harm inflicted on civilians in Ukraine over the last year is crucial for securing justice and reparations for the survivors and victims of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine,” said Agnès Callamard. 

Calls for accountability  

Since 2014 and subsequently, at the beginning of Russia’s full invasion, Amnesty International has been pursuing accountability in Ukraine, as well as documenting war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law. All of Amnesty International’s outputs published to date can be found here.