The Kremlin Accused of Acute War Crimes After Mass Graves and Dead Civilians Were Found in Bucha, Ukraine
Author: Laura Libertini
Department: Europe Team
On Sunday, April 3rd, 2022, extensive mass graves and corpses of disarmed Ukrainian civilians were found in the town of Bucha, approximately 30 kilometres northwest of Kyiv. After the withdrawal of Russian troops from the area, the city revealed nearly 400 dead bodies, civilians with their hands tied, and burnt-out debris lined the streets across the city. Ukrainian officials, supported by Western leaders, accused Russia of atrocious war crimes, demanding tougher actions against Russia, including the fifth round of sanctions (The Guardian, 2022). After the death and torture of dozens of civilians had been reported in the municipalities of Bucha, Irpin and Hostomel, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky denounced the attacks on his country and people as genocide. The Kremlin denied all the allegations, denouncing the fact as a provocation by Ukraine and the West to smash peace negotiations. Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov soon sought to gather a UN Security Council meeting to discuss the matter. Despite Russia’s denial of its involvement, satellite images from Bucha seem to reveal the presence of mass graves already in mid-March when the town was under Russian control. A long trench dug was spotted nearby a local church, with bodies of civilians wrapped in plastic (Boffey & Rankin, 2022).
On Tuesday, April 5th, 2022, further evidence of torture and killings emerged in Bucha. Three women, one teenage girl, and two men were found in the city, their bodies piled together, completely burnt-out and with evident signs of torture. One body was found with the arms raised in supplication and the face impressed with an atrocious scream; other bodies were found blackened and burned; another was reported to have a bullet wound in the left temple. The pile of corpses was found along a residential street, lying nearby a colourful and wrecked playground, visible to residents and other people. Associated Press journalists spotted dozens of corpses around Bucha, which showed evident signs of torture. Some were bound with their arms and hands and with bullet wounds on their heads (Stashevskyi & Cara, 2022).
Larysa Savenko, a 72-year-old woman, witnessed the atrocities of the Russian army as she locked herself, her son, and a homeless tenant in her shelter for five weeks. The occupation started right after the outbreak of the war, on February 27th, 2022, the third day of the conflict. On that day, Russian armoured vehicles were directed to the neighbouring town of Irpin and onward to Kyiv when they were struck by a Ukrainian shelling offensive, turning Bucha’s streets upside-down. Savenko said, “We couldn’t go out, everything around was on fire”. When the Russians left the town, dead bodies were lying throughout the city, including near Savenko’s house. Another resident, Olga, 42, and her husband and son returned to their home in Bucha after fleeing when the invasion started, discovering that their recently renovated apartment was destroyed after an airstrike (Rubinsztein-Dunlop & Hemingway, 2022). Human Rights Watch investigated the facts of the Russian-occupied territories, including Bucha, and conducted interviews with witnesses, victims, and residents. A woman informed Human Rights Watch that on March 13th, 2022, a Russian soldier raped her repeatedly in a school where she and her family were hiding in the Kharkiv region. She said that the man beat her and cut her face, neck, and hair with a knife. In Bucha on March 4th, 2022, a witness told Human Rights Watch that Russian troops gathered five men and summarily executed one of them. The soldiers forced the men to bend their knees on the side of the road, pulled their t-shirts over their heads, and shot one man in the nape. The witness said, “He fell [over], and the women [present at the scene] screamed” (Human Rights Watch, 2022).
On Tuesday, April 5th, 2022, the United Nations Security Council gathered for a meeting to discuss the recent events that occurred in Bucha. UN Secretary-General António Guterres reiterated the senselessness of the war, leading to massive devastation and loss of precious lives, calling for an independent investigation to guarantee efficient accountability. Rosemary DiCarlo, Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, declared that the number of civilian victims has doubled since her last briefing on March 17th, 2022. She continued by addressing the images of dead and tortured Ukrainians found in Bucha, affirming that reports by non-governmental organisations and media allege summary executions of civilians, rape, and looting across several Ukrainian regions, in particular, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Kyiv. Later, President Zelensky emphasised that the facts of Bucha represent only a small part as many other cities under Russian occupation are theatres of destruction and atrocities towards innocent people. By recalling Article 1 of the UN Charter on the purposes of the United Nations, Zelensky stressed the primary goal of maintaining international peace and security, stressing that the UN Security Council is failing its purpose of guaranteeing peace and of ensuring the respect of the principles enshrined in the UN Charter. He concluded by stating that “Ukraine has the moral right to propose a reform of the world security system. We have proven that we help others not only in happy times, but in dark times too. And now we need a decision from the UN Security Council for peace in Ukraine”. During the debate, Olof Skoog, head of the European Union delegation, demanded the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine, recognising the inalienable right of Ukraine to territorial sovereignty and independence. U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield declared that, according to the available data, the U.S. was able to assess that the Russian army committed war crimes. Therefore, the U.S. demands the suspension of Moscow from the Human Rights Council, as the Kremlin is using this position as a stage for its propaganda (United Nations, 2022). On Thursday, April 7th, 2022, with 93 votes in favour and 24 against, the United Nations General Assembly voted to suspend the Russian Federation from the UN Human Rights Council after alleged atrocities committed by the Russian army since the invasion of Ukraine. “Russia should not have a position of authority in a body whose purpose – whose very purpose – is to promote respect for human rights. Not only is it the height of hypocrisy – it is dangerous,” Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield stated. Sergiy Kyslytsya, the Ukrainian ambassador to the UN, declared that Moscow’s activities in Ukraine “would be equated to war crimes and crimes against humanity.” As a response, the deputy Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Gennady Kuzmin, appealed to Member States to refuse this resolution, suggesting that it would represent “a dangerous precedent” (Roth et al., 2022).
During the UN Security Council meeting held on Tuesday, April 5th, 2022, President Zelensky severely condemned Russia’s atrocities committed toward the Ukrainian population, recalling that holocaust organisers did not go unpunished and requesting a trial to adjudicate Russian war crimes following the path of the 1945-1946 Nuremberg Trials. According to the International Criminal Court Rome Statute, the definition of war crimes, enshrined in Article 8 (2) (a) as being:
Grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of August 12th, 1949, namely, any of the following acts against persons or property protected under the provisions of the relevant Geneva Convention:
- Wilful killing;
- Torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments;
- Wilfully causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or health;
- Extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly;
- Compelling a prisoner of war or other protected person to serve in the forces of a hostile Power;
- Wilfully depriving a prisoner of war or other protected person of the rights of fair and regular trial;
- Unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement;
- Taking hostages.
The Rome Statute in Article 8 (2) (c) also defines the definition of war crimes in situations of non-international armed conflicts, including “(i) Violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture; (ii) Committing outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment; (iii) Taking hostages; (iv) The passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgement pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all judicial guarantees which are generally recognised as indispensable”.
Major international leaders and institutions severely condemned the events of Bucha and the reports that emerged in other Russian-occupied regions. Liz Throssell, spokesperson for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights declared that “What we have seen emerging in Bucha and other areas, clearly points to a very disturbing development…all the signs are that the victims were directly targeted and directly killed”. She continues by stating that “We are not saying that this specific incident is a war crime, we can’t establish that yet, that is why there needs to be detailed forensic examination…Justice and accountability take time; what is important is that this work is undertaken and continues to ensure accountability going forward” (United Nations, 2022).
The Russian-Ukrainian conflict has already culminated in one of the harsher humanitarian crises of the century, where severe violations of human rights and international humanitarian law are at the very core of the war. Thus, it is widely recognised that the events in Bucha and across other Ukrainian cities cannot go unnoticed. It is too soon to affirm that the Kremlin is directly responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, the International Criminal Court’s Chief Prosecutor has opened a formal investigation into the alleged crimes committed by the Russian army in Ukraine.
Sources and further readings:
Boffey, D. & Rankin, J. (2022, April 3). Killing of civilians in Bucha and Kyiv condemned as ‘terrible war crime’. The Guardian. Retrieved on April 29, 2022,from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/apr/03/eu-leaders-condemn-killing-of-unarmed-civilians-in-bucha-and-kyiv
Human Rights Watch. (2022, April 3). Ukraine: Apparent War Crimes in Russia-Controlled Areas. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved on April 29, 2022, from https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/04/03/ukraine-apparent-war-crimes-russia-controlled-areas
PBS NewsHours. (2022, April 6). WATCH LIVE: UN Security Council discusses Bucha killings in Ukraine, Zelenksy to speak via video
. YouTube. Retrieved on April 7, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M8xqnh7imVg&t=2520s
Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, 1998.
Roth, R., Sullivan, K., Beech, S., & Ly, L. (2022, April 7). UN suspends Russia from Human Rights Council. CNN. Retrieved on April 29, 2022, from https://edition.cnn.com/2022/04/07/politics/un-russia-human-rights/index.html
Rubinsztein-Dunlop, S., & Hemingway, P. (2022, April 5). What happened in Bucha? Inside Ukrainian city of horrors caught up in Russia’s battle for Kyiv. ABC News. Retrieved on April 29, 2022, from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-04-06/inside-bucha-ukraine-after-alleged-russian-atrocities/100966702
Stashevskyi, O., & Cara, A., (2022, April 6). In Bucha, Ukraine, burned, piled bodies among latest horrors. ABC News. Retrieved on April 29, 2022, from https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/bucha-ukraine-burned-piled-bodies-latest-horrors-83902341
The Guardian. (2022, April 5). Zelenskiy says more than 300 people killed and tortured in Bucha – as it happened. The Guardian. Retrieved on April 29, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/live/2022/apr/04/russia-ukraine-war-latest-zelenskiy-calls-russian-forces-butchers-after-civilian-mass-graves-found-around-kyiv-live?utm_term=624bbec5be642e71a5388f883e34f161&utm_campaign=GuardianTodayUK&utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&CMP=GTUK_email
United Nations. (2022, April 5). Ukraine’s President calls on Security Council to act for peace, or “dissolve” itself. United Nations. Retrieved on 2022, April 29 from https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/04/1115632
United Nations. (2022, April 5). Ukraine: UN’s Guterres joins call for Bucha war crimes probe. United Nations. Retrieved on 2022, April 29 from https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/04/1115522