Experienced human rights group documents war crimes in Ukraine

Experienced human rights group documents war crimes in Ukraine
Yevgeniy Zakharov: Justice does not have a statute of limitations – particularly when it comes to these very serious international crimes.

A network of more than 20 organisations collects evidence of torture and other war crimes

»Our main challenge is the sheer amount of torture and other war crimes and the fact that these crimes are committed constantly and simultaneously in different regions of Ukraine«.

With this assessment, Yevgeniy Zakharov, director of DIGNITY’s partner the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG), takes stock after one year of war in Ukraine following the Russian invasion on February 24th, 2022.

KHPG works with DIGNITY on collecting evidence of torture and other war crimes. The organisation has been active in human rights work in Ukraine for more than 30 years. Last year it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize as part of the International Memorial umbrella organisation.

The collection of evidence is organised in the Tribunal for Putin initiative, which consists of more than 20 organisations that work in different regions of Ukraine.

The documenters collect information from open sources on the internet. These cannot, however, be used as legal evidence for specific crimes or as basis for legal or other assistance to victims. Therefore, the network needs to collect a lot of information that is not accessible on the internet.

»We need to put emphasis on the reports from victims and witnesses and collection of testimonies in the form of interviews with them. The quality of our database should be evaluated by the number of incidents where personal data of victims, witnesses and perpetrators are available«, says Yevgeniy Zakharov.

By mid-February 2023 the database contained more than 34.000 incidents. 22 per cent of these had the important personal data attached to them.

The collected documentation has been submitted to the Ukrainian prosecution services and will later be submitted to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

Victim-centred approach

KHPG’s approach to the collection of evidence is victim-centred. This means bringing as many perpetrators as possible to justice without any statute of limitations.

»Justice does not have a statute of limitations – particularly when it comes to these very serious international crimes«, says Yevgeniy Zakharov.

But to the KHPG, victim-centred also means giving comprehensive assistance to victims. This involves moral, legal, psychological, medical, social, and humanitarian support. Under the project, lawyers, psychologists, and journalists visit the parts of Ukraine that were formerly under Russian occupation and shelters in Ukrainian cities where internally displaced Ukrainians from the occupied territories have sought refuge.

»During such visits we offer legal advice, initial psychological help, and collect testimonies through interviews. Our teams will come back several times or stay for days until all affected residents have been heard and assisted. This has proven a highly efficient approach«, explains Yevgeniy Zakharov.

DIGNITY advises the KHPG on how to better support victims through victim support centres.

Yevgeniy Zakharov points out that DIGNITY is playing an important role in KHPG’s work:

»DIGNITY is a friendly partner organisation that responds attentively and flexibly to all the needs of the project, changes its design and budget as needed, and discusses all the details and nuances. This helps us a lot«, says Yevgeniy Zakharov.

DIGNITY’s work with the KHPG includes capacity building, in which KHPG employees are trained in documentation of international crimes. DIGNITY provides advice on the collection and storage of evidence and will develop the submissions to the International Criminal Court jointly with the KHPG.

DIGNITY’s project with the KHPG and the Ukrainian network is funded by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Results (as per February 1st, 2023):
  • 8950 incidents of crimes committed in the Kharkiv region and 3020 in Mariupol were documented.

  • 23 monitoring visits were made to settlements and shelters in the regions of Kharkiv, Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy.

  • 626 victims received legal advice.

  • 282 victims received psychological assistance.

  • 312 victims received charitable cash assistance and another 776 applications for assistance are being considered.

  • More than 130 interviews have been filmed and published. More than 50 of them have been translated into English and other languages.

In total, about 1200 complaints about crimes were submitted. Regarding 67 of them, the KHPG is conducting investigative actions together with the investigative department of Ukraine’s security service in the Kharkiv region. Investigative actions regarding 35 other cases were conducted together with other law enforcement agencies. KHPG also initiated 38 cases for international institutions.

Thanks to monitoring visits under KHPG’s project with DIGNITY, more than 1000 victims of war crimes have obtained victim status in criminal proceedings. This may enable them to receive compensation at a later stage.

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