Written by: Mariia Panchenko
Project team: Olha Opalenko, Mykyta Biliakov, Nataliia Kaplun, Inna Krat, Oleksandr Leonov, Pavlo Shvab
- The context of human rights violations in the occupied territories of Ukraine.
On February 24, 2022, the armed forces of the Russian Federation carried out a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which was a continuation and escalation of the international armed conflict that has been going on between Russia and Ukraine since 2014. As a result of the new intensified attack, in addition to the previously occupied regions of Crimea and parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, Russia managed to occupy other territories of Ukraine, including parts of the Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Mykolaiv regions and some settlements in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that had not been occupied before. During the hostilities, the Ukrainian armed forces liberated Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, Mykolaiv, part of the Kherson, and almost all of the Kharkiv regions; other territories are still under Russian occupation.
- Human Rights during armed conflict and international legal obligations of the Russian Federation
During an armed conflict, the legal regime of international humanitarian law (hereinafter referred to as IHL) applies. It defines the rules of war and, among other things, the rules of treatment of protected categories of persons, including the civilian population of the occupied territories. During an armed conflict, IHL, as a lex specialis, prevails over international human rights law (hereinafter – IHRL). However, the IHRL regime mustn’t cease to operate. It is applied in parallel to IHL and continues to protect individuals from abuse or arbitrary exercise of power by state representatives even during the war, although with some limitations.
According to the principle of extraterritorial jurisdiction, a state is responsible for human rights violations by its representatives in any territory over which it has effective control, even if that territory is outside its internationally recognized national borders. Thus, Russia is responsible for human rights violations by its representatives in the occupied territories of Ukraine.
Most recently, Russia was a party to the European Convention on Human Rights of 1950 (hereinafter referred to as the ECHR or the Convention) and thus was subject to the jurisdiction of the ECtHR, which, according to the ECHR, is empowered to consider individual and inter-state applications alleging human rights violations by a State party. However, the Russian Federation withdrew from the Council of Europe on March 16, 2022, and ceased to be a party to the Convention. After September 16, 2022, the ECHR no longer has the legal authority to hold Russia accountable for human rights violations. In other words, Russia has de facto ceased to be part of the European human rights protection system, which has created a legal vacuum: Russian representatives continue to commit human rights violations, but there are no longer any tools to bring them to justice.
However, this does not exempt Russia from its obligations under the IHRL. Firstly, human rights are universally recognized as jus cogens and erga omnes norms, which makes them part of customary international law. In other words, they are universal and binding on any member of the international community, regardless of the presence or absence of obligations under treaty law. Secondly, Russia also has treaty obligations in the field of human rights, as it is a party to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and a party to the vast majority of the main UN conventions protecting human rights, in particular, the following:
- The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966 (hereinafter – the ICCPR);
- The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966;
- The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination of 1965;
- The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women of 1979;
- The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment of 1984;
- The Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989;
- Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2006.
To implement each of these international documents, a UN treaty-based quasi-judicial body was established to record violations of the rights of persons under the jurisdiction of a state party. Although the decisions of these bodies are advisory and inferior to the force of ECHR judgments, they can be one of the levers of influence on Russia.
Despite its numerous human rights obligations, during the more than nine years of the armed conflict – and especially after February 24, 2022 – there has not been a single rule or prohibition of the IHRL and IHL that Russia has not violated, demonstrating a blatant disregard and complete disrespect for the international legal order and international law.
- Human rights violations in the occupied territories in January 2023
The parts of Ukraine occupied by the Russian Federation remain restricted from access by national and international institutions and organizations studying human rights. Under such conditions, data from social networks, media, etc., is a valuable source of information about everything that happens in these territories.
For a long time, Vostok SOS experts have been monitoring open sources and, based on the information collected, recording human rights violations committed by representatives of the Russian Federation in the occupied territories and publishing monthly reports on the violations.
This report provides an overview of human rights violations committed in the occupied territories of Ukraine in January 2023.
It is important that since the spring of 2022, the number of such violations has not decreased, and the occupying power has not shown any positive dynamics concerning human rights. Representatives of the Russian Federation and its occupation administrations continue to abuse power in the territories of Ukraine temporarily under their control, humiliating the dignity and causing significant harm to the health and well-being of civilians.
The data collected and presented in this report does not claim to be comprehensive and represents only a small percentage of all human rights violations committed in the occupied territories.
- Number and types of human rights violations
In total, in January 2023, Vostok SOS monitors identified 118 cases of human rights violations in the occupied regions of Ukraine. Most violations were recorded in the Kherson (38) and Zaporizhzhia (37) regions. In other regions, the numbers are lower: Luhansk region – 19 cases; Crimea – 7; Donetsk region – 2.
The property right was violated most often this month – 56 cases, including 27 in the Luhansk region, 13 in the Kherson region, 11 in the Zaporizhzhia region, 4 in the Donetsk region, and 1 in Crimea. These figures reflect isolated acts of destruction or misappropriation of civilian property. At the same time, in January 2023, in Mariupol, Donetsk region, the occupation administration continued to destroy entire buildings and even neighborhoods, which is a massive violation of the right to property.
Other common types of violations in the occupied territories in January 2023 include the following:
- the right to liberty and security of person – 33 such cases were recorded in January: 13 – in the Zaporizhzhia region; 13 – in the Kherson region, and 7 cases in Crimea;
- prohibition of torture – a total of 12 cases: 5 in the Zaporizhzhia region; 4 in the Kherson region, and 3 in Crimea;
- right to life – 11 cases: 8 – Kherson region; 3 – Zaporizhzhia region;
- freedom of thought, conscience, and religion – 4 cases in the Zaporizhzhia region;
- prohibition of slavery and forced labor – 1 case in the Zaporizhzhia region.
- Examples of human rights violations in the occupied territories
The property right
The most widespread human rights violation in the occupied territories in January 2023 was the violation of the right to property. The Russian military, representatives of the local occupation administrations, and members of the L/DPR paramilitary groups systematically misappropriated or destroyed residents’ property.
In January 2023, most such cases were recorded in the Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia regions. First of all, residents complain about the arbitrary appropriation of their property. For example, in the cities of Severodonetsk, Lysychansk, and Kreminna, as well as in the towns of Bilovodsk, Stanytsia Luhanska, and the villages of Makiivka, Valuiske, Vovchoiarivka, and Kalmykivka in the Luhansk region, Russian military personnel have moved into civilian apartments and houses without permission and are using their property.
A similar situation can be observed in the Kherson region. For example, in the village of Nyzhni Sirohozy, Russian soldiers are appropriating the houses and apartments of residents. In the Skadovsk district, 10 Russian soldiers moved into the house of a family that had moved to the territory controlled by Ukraine.
Misappropriation of residents’ property was also recorded in several settlements of the Zaporizhzhia region. For example, in Melitopol, the Russian military is evicting people from their homes, and in Enerhodar, Russian power engineers have been settled in residents’ apartments.
The appropriation of property from residents of the occupied territories is mostly part of the systemic policy of “nationalization” of property implemented by the occupation administrations. For example, in January 2023, in the village of Zaliznyi Port, Kherson region, the so-called administration conducted a census and confiscated businesses (boarding houses, cafes, restaurants, etc.) from Ukrainian citizens that had not been re-registered under Russian law. In addition, in the city of Berdiansk, Zaporizhzhia region, residents are threatened with the confiscation of their apartments under the pretext of “non-payment of bills,” and in Mariupol, Donetsk region, the occupation authorities are “nationalizing” private property by issuing warrants for the property of people who have left the city.
The Russian military also appropriates not only houses and apartments but also the movable property of residents. In particular, in January, numerous cases of vehicle theft by the Russian military were recorded in the following settlements: Luhansk region – in the cities of Rubizhne and Sievierodonetsk, villages of Dibrova and Shchedryshcheve; Kherson region – cases in Kakhovka and Henichesk districts, as well as in the village of Oleshky; Zaporizhzhia region – in the city of Melitopol.
Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to own property, alone or in association with others” and that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his or her property”.
The right to liberty and security of a person
The second most common violation in the occupied territories is the violation of a person’s right to liberty and security. This right is violated through illegal abductions, arrests, and transfer of civilians to an unknown destination by the Russian military, representatives of the FSB, as well as members of the L/DPR paramilitary groups, and employees of the occupation structures, such as police, security forces, etc.
In January 2023, the Russian military abducted several people in the Kherson region: two men in the Henichesk district, a 60-year-old woman and her nephew in the village of Oleshky, and ten residents in the Kakhovka district. In addition, in the Holoprystan district, Russian soldiers abducted five members of the same family, who were taken to an unknown destination, and their house was blown up.
Similar cases have also been reported in the Zaporizhzhia region. For example, in Melitopol, the Russian military kidnapped an entrepreneur, and doctors are massively abducted and tortured in Berdiansk. According to open source information, abducted residents of the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions are being held in Crimea, in particular in the city of Simferopol; some hostages are being held in the Simferopol pre-trial detention center without any proceedings being opened against them.
In the occupied Crimea, the harassment of Crimean Tatars also continues: this month, representatives of the Russian Federal Security Service illegally arrested 7 people on charges of “terrorism”.
Article 9 of the ICCPR states that “everyone has the right to liberty and security of person” and that “no one shall be arbitrarily arrested or detained”.
Prohibition of torture
Torturing civilians in the occupied territories is an integral part of the policy of the Russian invaders and occupation administrations toward the local population. In particular, torture is used against people who actively resist the occupation or are suspected of disloyalty to the new government.
In January 2023, it became known that the occupiers had set up two torture chambers in the Skadovsk district of the Kherson region. Also, in the Henichesk district, the Russian military abduct and torture people who refuse to cooperate. In addition, in the village of Korobky, Kherson region, the Russian military torture people whose relatives serve in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
Article 7 of the ICCPR states, “no one shall be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”.
The right to life
Representatives of the Russian Federation torture and arbitrarily kill residents of the occupied territories, violating their right to life.
Most of these cases in January 2023 were recorded in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. In the city of Nova Kakhovka, the Russian military tortured a volunteer to death, and in the village of Korobky, Kherson region, two local men were killed: one was shot dead for refusing to give up his car, and the other was tortured to death because his brother served in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Also, in the village of Solontsi, Kherson region, Russian soldiers killed a 38-year-old local man.
In the village of Polohy, Zaporizhzhia region, the Russian military tortured a forester to death. In Berdiansk, a Russian military vehicle with the inscription “Z” ran over a man to death, and in the village of Mykhailivka, Zaporizhzhia region, the occupiers killed a woman who had been illegally deprived of her liberty for almost a month.
Article 6 of the ICCPR states that “the right to life is the inherent right of everyone. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of their life”.
Prohibition of slavery and forced labor
In January 2023, Vostok SOS monitors also recorded one case of forced labor of civilians in the occupied territories. In particular, in the city of Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia region, the Russian military is purposefully looking for people who support Ukraine and show disloyalty to the occupation authorities. Detainees are forced to dig trenches.
Article 8 of the ICCPR implements an absolute prohibition on forced labor, stating that “no one shall be held in slavery” or “subjected to forced labor”.
Freedom of thought, conscience, and religion
Human rights violations recorded in January 2023 include attacks on religious figures who do not belong to the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) and the seizure of churches. Similarly to previous months, most of these cases were observed in the Zaporizhzhia region. For example, in Melitopol, Russian troops seized an Evangelical (Pentecostal) church; in Berdiansk, they attacked a Baptist church. In addition, two priests were abducted in Berdiansk. In addition, churches that do not obey the occupation regime are massively closed in Berdiansk.
Article 18 of the ICCPR states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”. This right also includes the freedom to manifest any religion or belief.
- Comparative analysis of human rights violations recorded in January 2023 with data collected in the previous three months (October-December 2022), conclusions.
For a better understanding of the human rights situation in the occupied territories of Ukraine, let’s compare the data recorded by monitors in January 2023 with the information on human rights violations collected by them in the previous three months (October-December 2022).
Thus, in December 2022, 87 violations were identified based on open-source data. The leading regions regarding the number of violations were Kherson (35 violations) and Zaporizhzhia (31 violations). Similar to this month, the property right was most often violated – 40 cases: 17 in the Kherson region; 12 in the Zaporizhzhia region; 8 in the Luhansk region; 2 in the Donetsk region; and 1 in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. The next most common violations in December were violations of the right to liberty and security of person – 33 cases in total in all occupied regions (most in the Kherson (14) and Zaporizhzhia (13) regions); the right to life (6 cases) and the prohibition of torture (5 cases).
In November 2022, 104 human rights violations were recorded in all occupied territories, with the highest number of violations in the Zaporizhzhia (45 cases) and Kherson (34 cases) regions. Violations of the property right were also the most common type of violation, accounting for 45 cases out of 104 in all regions: 20 – in the Zaporizhzhia region; 16 – in the Kherson region; 7 – in the Luhansk region; 2 – in the Donetsk region. The right to liberty and security of person was violated 32 times; the prohibition of torture – 18 times; the right to life – 6 times.
In October 2022, the monitoring revealed 47 violations, most of which were committed in the Kherson region (30 cases). The property right was violated most often – 20 cases: Kherson region – 15, Luhansk region – 3, Zaporizhzhia region – 1, Donetsk region – 1, and the right to liberty and security of person – also 20 cases: 9 – in Kherson region; 6 – in Luhansk region; 4 – in Zaporizhzhia region and one case in Crimea. The right to life was violated 6 times, 5 of which were in the Kherson region; in addition, one violation of the prohibition of torture was recorded in the Kherson region.
A comparative analysis of information on human rights violations for January 2023 and the last three months (October-December 2022) allows us to draw the following conclusions:
- the number of human rights violations in the occupied territories is not decreasing and varies from 45 to 110 violations per month. The cases recorded by Vostok SOS monitors make up a small percentage of all human rights violations currently taking place in the occupied territories;
- the most common type of violation is the violation of the right to property of residents of the occupied territories; the second most common is the right to liberty and security of a person. The occupiers also torture and kill civilians in the territories under their control;
- most violations are committed in the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, the territories occupied by Russia due to its full-scale invasion in 2022. Perhaps the high number of human rights violations recorded in these regions does not depend on the intensity of the offenses but on the fact that these regions have been occupied recently and, accordingly, the information space of these territories has not yet been “cleared” by the occupation administration as in Crimea or the territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions occupied since 2014;
- responsible for human rights violations are, in particular, the personnel of the Russian Armed Forces, representatives of the FSB, local occupation administrations, the L/DPR IAGs, as well as various paramilitary groups, such as Kadyrov’s men, Wagner’s men, etc. supported and encouraged by Russia.