- STEPHANIE NEBEHAY
The UN human rights chief said on Thursday that tens of millions of lives were at risk in Ukraine as the conflict there escalated.
Michelle Bachelet called for an immediate cessation of hostilities as she opened a debate at the Human Rights Council in Geneva on the creation of an international commission of inquiry into alleged violations by Russia.
“Tens of millions of people remain in the country, potentially in life-threatening danger. I am deeply concerned that the current escalation of military operations will further aggravate the damage they face,” Bachelet said.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet delivers remarks at the opening of a session of the UN Human Rights Council, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine , in Geneva, Switzerland, on February 28. PHOTO: Fabrice Coffrini/Pool via Reuters.
Russia’s ambassador to the council, Gennady Gatilov, rejected calls for an investigation, denounced what he called the “criminal Kiev regime” and accused the US and EU of supplying lethal weapons.
“We don’t see any added value in today’s debate,” he said.
Emine Dzhaparova, Ukraine’s first deputy foreign minister, told the talks via video message that Russian troops were committing acts amounting to war crimes and called for the perpetrators to be held accountable.
“Recent events clearly show that Russian troops fighting in Ukraine are committing the most flagrant violations and abuses of human rights, systematically engaging in acts that clearly constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity “, she said.
Dzhaparova urged the council to adopt a resolution presented by Ukraine and its allies, including the United States and the European Union, which would launch the international investigation. The resolution is expected to pass in a vote on Friday, Western diplomats said.
Hundreds of Russian soldiers and Ukrainian civilians have been killed since President Vladimir Putin sent his troops across the border on February 24.
Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a ‘special operation’, denies targeting civilians and says its aim is to ‘disarm’ Ukraine and arrest leaders it wrongly labels as neo-Nazis .
French Ambassador Jérôme Bonnafont, on behalf of the EU, said: “The gravity of the situation fully justifies the creation of a commission of inquiry. Russia must be held accountable for its actions.
US Ambassador Sheba Crocker told the forum: “We are deeply alarmed by daily reports of civilian casualties and Russia’s deployment of weapons such as cluster munitions and thermobarics against cities where innocent people take refuge”.
Chinese Ambassador Chen Xu, in a speech that did not refer to Russia, said Beijing has always opposed the politicization of human rights issues and “opposes the use human rights issues as a pretext to put pressure on other countries”.
“Therefore, we oppose the establishment of an independent international commission of inquiry on Ukraine,” Chen said.
A team from the International Criminal Court in The Hague left for “the region of Ukraine” on Thursday to see if there was evidence of atrocities committed by all sides, its lead prosecutor told Reuters.
Karim Khan told Reuters his office would see if there was evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity and acts of genocide – the offenses within the jurisdiction of the tribunal – by all parties to the conflict .
Asked about reports of artillery strikes in Ukrainian cities, Khan said: ‘Any party that targets, directly targets, civilians or civilian objects commits a crime under the Rome Statute and international humanitarian law’ , referring to the statue that created the search.
The International Criminal Court, which has 123 member states, prosecutes those responsible for the worst atrocities when a country is unable or unwilling to do so.
Neither Russia nor Ukraine are members of the ICC and Moscow does not recognize the tribunal, which opened in The Hague in 2002.
Ukraine signed a declaration in 2014 giving the court jurisdiction over serious crimes allegedly committed on its territory from 2014, regardless of the nationality of the perpetrators.
“Law of War”
“The laws of war continue to apply and we have clear jurisdiction,” Khan said. “This is a reminder to all factions, to all parties to the conflict, that they must conduct themselves according to the laws of war.”
If war crimes were found to have been committed in Ukraine, Khan said, his office would follow the evidence up the chain of command, to the highest levels of political and military office.
“Anyone involved in a conflict must realize that they do not have a license to commit crimes,” he said.
The initial prosecution team sent Thursday was made up of investigators, lawyers and people with special experience in operational planning, he added.
Prosecutors said they would also look into possible crimes in the conflict dating back to Russia’s occupation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and the activities of pro-Russian separatists in Donbass. Khan’s office has previously said it has reasonable grounds to believe abuses took place in Ukraine.
The prosecutor’s 2020 annual report based on preliminary investigations documents alleged murder and torture in Crimea and attacks on civilians, torture, murder and rape in eastern Ukraine.
– Additional reporting by ANTHONY DEUTSCH and PAUL CARREL.