Maham Javaid, the Center's 2022 Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow, writes for the New York Times. This article first appeared here. Image caption: A gravedigger working at a site where 30 unidentified bodies were buried last week in Bilohorodka, near Kyiv. (Mauricio Lima for The New York Times)
After visiting numerous bombing sites and detention centers, conducting hundreds of interviews and scouring piles of documents, the United Nations has put a number to the human cost of Russia’s war in Ukraine: at least 3,924 civilians dead as of May 15, of whom 193 were children, and 4,444 injured.
The numbers, released in a report on Wednesday, include only those deaths and injuries independently verified by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Deaths and injuries after May 15 have yet to be documented.
The true numbers of civilians killed and injured are likely to be far larger. The high commissioner’s office has reported a total of 4,731 civilians killed and 5,900 injured as of June 27. Ukraine itself has reported that tens of thousands have died in Russian bombardments and other attacks. In Mariupol alone, local officials estimated that at least 20,000 died during Russia’s siege. In the Kyiv suburbs, officials have documented at least 1,200 civilians killed by Russian troops.
The official toll will climb as more investigation is done and the war grinds on.
“The daily killing of civilians, the torture, disappearances and other violations must stop,” Matilda Bogner, the head of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, said in Kyiv on Wednesday as she released the report. It portrayed a worsening human rights situation in the country, including widespread destruction of infrastructure and housing, and abuses like torture and conflict-related sexual violence.
“If the hostilities will not stop, then the absolute minimum required is to fully respect international humanitarian and human rights law,” Ms Bogner said.
In Ukraine, Russia has made widespread use of weapons that kill, maim and destroy indiscriminately, a potential violation of international humanitarian law. Earlier this week, an airstrike leveled a shopping center in central Ukraine, leaving at least 18 people dead and many others wounded. Some people are still unaccounted for.
Even in cities and towns away from the war’s fiercest fighting, the number of civilian casualties continues to rise, along with damage to homes, hospitals and schools. Adults and children were bombed while visiting government hospitals in Vuhledar, while lining up at ATMs in Mykolaiv and while waiting for aid at distribution centers in Kharkiv, the report said.
The UN report documents what appear to be violations of international human rights and humanitarian laws, including war crimes.
War crimes can be difficult to prosecute, because it is hard to prove that killings of civilians were intentional and that people up the chain of command knew about, ordered or sanctioned atrocities committed by soldiers. The Russian war in Ukraine, however, may be a turning point for charging national leaders. Since February, there have been efforts by the United Nations, the International Criminal Court and Ukrainian prosecutors to gather evidence of war crimes and to determine whether the Kremlin can be held responsible for violating internationally set rules of war.
Ms Bogner noted that international law had been violated “to varying degrees, by both parties.” She said investigators had documented more violations by Russian forces, but added, “It appears that Ukrainian armed forces did not comply with international humanitarian law in eastern parts of the country.”
The war crimes the UN report listed included summary executions of civilians, among them women and children; mistreatment of prisoners of war; the arbitrary detention and disappearance of local officials, journalists and activists; and extrajudicial punishments meted out to individuals accused of being thieves, bootleggers, drug dealers and curfew violators.
The report also mentions mounting allegations of sexual violence, including rapes, gang rapes and a few cases of forced nudity. These crimes have been difficult to investigate, the report said, because some victims are unwilling or unable to be interviewed. The UN mission verified at least 23 cases of sexual violence, most of them involving members of the Russian armed forces.