War in Ukraine: Protecting civilians must be top priority

On Thursday, February 24, 2022, the Russian army attacked Ukraine. Bombing, rocket attacks, rocket attacks… Vladimir Putin’s troops and tank columns have entered the country and are knocking on the doors of the capital Kyiv.

From the very beginning of the invasion, we continued our mission to investigate human rights violations in the country. The Russian invasion is a crime of aggression and, according to our research, the Russian military is carrying out indiscriminate attacks on Ukraine and using indiscriminate weapons prohibited by international law. These facts constitute possible war crimes.

Our worst fears have come true responded Agnès Callamard, our general secretary. After weeks of escalation, Russia invaded Ukraine. Diplomacy failed. Bombs are falling. Civilians will die. Some are already dying.

We think of the Ukrainians on the front lines of a new war in Europe and of all our Amnesty Ukraine colleagues.

Declaration of war on television

The threat of war in Ukraine has been brewing for weeks. After the recognition on Monday, February 21, by Russian President Vladimir Putin of two separatist territories – the Lugansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic, located in the Donbass *, in eastern Ukraine, tensions reached a climax, a paroxysm. On the night of Thursday, February 24, Vladimir Putin finally announced his decision special military operation ” for ” demilitarize and denazify Ukraine “.

A televised declaration of war during which he stated:

Anyone who tries to interfere in our affairs, or worse, threaten our country and our people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will have consequences that you have never experienced before.

Explosions sounded around 5 am in several Ukrainian cities, including the capital Kyiv. Rocket-rocket shelling of Ukrainian military bases. The attack of the Russian troops was carried out from Russia, Belarus, and also from the Crimea. On the eve of Ukraine declared a state of emergency and introduced martial law. Now its airspace is closed.

Timeline: origins of the conflict

1991: independence of Ukraine, a former Soviet republic divided between a pro-Western majority and a Russian-speaking minority living in the east, known as “pro-Russians”.

December 26, 2004: the election of a widely regarded pro-Western president, Viktor Yushchenko, marking the beginning of Kyiv’s rapprochement with the European Union (EU) and NATO.

February 7, 2010: the election of Viktor Yanukovych, who is considered pro-Russian and refuses to sign an association agreement with the EU.

February 2014 : The Ukrainian Revolution or “Maidan Revolution”, which causes the resignation of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.

March 2014: annexation of Crimea to Russia.

Since 2014: civil war in the Donbass, in the east of the country. He opposes pro-Russian forces backed by Moscow and the Ukrainian government. Donbass consists of the administrative entities of Donetsk and Lugansk.

Indiscriminate strikes and use of indiscriminate weapons

* Indiscriminate Weapons: These are inaccurate weapons that can hit civilians and homes. These weapons are prohibited by international law.

The Russian Defense Ministry assured that “ the armed forces do not inflict any strikes on the cities of Ukraine be it rockets, air strikes or artillery. But according to preliminary information, the Russian army has already carried out indiscriminate attacks on the territory of Ukraine and used indiscriminate weapons*. We have investigated several attacks, and our research, supported by the Amnesty International Crisis Evidence Lab*, confirmed that the Russian military used ballistic missiles and other inaccurate explosive weapons.

* Amnesty International’s Crisis Evidence Lab analyzes digital evidence including photographs, videos and satellite images.

In Ugledar, near Chuguev, in Akhtyrka, in Uman (respectively in the east, north-east and in the center of Ukraine), as well as in Kharkov, the second largest city in the country, and in Chernigov, shelling and bombing attacks on settlements and protected places, such as a hospital or school. These indiscriminate strikes resulted in the death of several civilians, including children.

See also: What is international humanitarian law?

In Vuhledar, Donetsk region, analysis of photographs of debris from a rocket that exploded near a hospital around 10:30 on February 24 showed that it was a 9M79 Tochka ballistic missile. This highly inaccurate weapon regularly misses its target by half a kilometer or more. It should never be used in populated areas.

* Between 5 and 40% of submunitions do not explode on impact, and then turn into anti-personnel mines that continue to threaten the population long after the end of the conflict. At the slightest touch, they maim, severely burn or kill.

Similarly, on February 25, a kindergarten was hit by cluster munitions in Akhtyrka in northeastern Ukraine. A child and two other civilians were killed. This is the fourth attack on a school that we managed to record in this conflict. Cluster bombs consist of a shell-like container containing smaller explosive projectiles called “submunitions”*. These weapons are prohibited by international law because, by their very nature, they inevitably strike civilian areas. Nothing can justify the dropping of cluster munitions in populated areas, especially in the vicinity of a school.

On February 28, in Kharkiv, the second largest city in the country, we also recorded 3 terrorist attacks that killed at least 9 civilians, including children, even during peace negotiations on the border with Belarus.

On February 3, an airstrike (eight bombs), probably Russian, killed at least 47 civilians in Chernihiv. To learn more.

All of these attacks violate international law and constitute possible war crimes.

See also: In Ukraine, the Russian military fired on civilians

Moving on: what weapons are prohibited under humanitarian law?

Photo by Justin Yau/Sipa USA. In this photo, residents of Chuguev in Ukraine, February 24, 2022, in front of a building heavily damaged by Russian bombing. The Amnesty Crisis Evidence Lab has confirmed damage to a residential building near the Chuguev air base in Ukraine, which resulted in the death of one civilian and the injury of another.

Repeated disregard for human rights

The Russian military demonstrates blatant disregard for the lives of civilians by using ballistic missiles and other explosive weapons with a wide range of effect in densely populated areas. Some of these attacks may constitute war crimes. The Russian government, which falsely claims to use only precision-guided weapons, should take responsibility for these actions.”, said Agnès Callamard, our general secretary.

* Deliberate attacks against the civilian population and civilian objects, as well as indiscriminate attacks resulting in the death or injury of civilians, are war crimes.

Whether in the conflict in the Donbass in eastern Ukraine, or in Syria, or in the context of his military campaigns inside the country, in Chechnya, Russia’s recent history of military intervention is marred by blatant disregard for human rights and international humanitarian law (see box). This repeated failure by the Russian military to comply with international law raises fears that history will repeat itself.

We are particularly concerned about the activities of the militias on the territory of Ukraine. It is common knowledge that these Russian-backed militias in Donbas do not comply with international humanitarian law or the obligation to report, nor do the militias of the pro-Ukrainian government.

See also: Wagner, Vladimir Putin’s secret army

Protection of civilians, absolute priority

Even wars have their laws: the protection of civilians and civilian property is one of them. However, at present, in Ukraine, thousands of people live in conditions of illegal encroachments.

The UN General Assembly voted on Wednesday, March 2, for a resolution “which condemns in the strongest possible terms the aggression committed by Russia against Ukraine” – 141 votes in favor (including the DRC), 5 votes against (Russia, Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, Syria), 35 abstentions.

The International Criminal Court, for its part, which was attended by 39 member states, decided to open an investigation. This sends a strong signal to all perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine, including the most responsible senior government officials, who will be held accountable as individuals.

Moving on: War in Ukraine: Those responsible for international crimes must be held accountable

The lives, livelihoods and infrastructure of the civilian population are now under serious threat. The risks of severe food insecurity are real. The displacement of the population is massive. But in this difficult humanitarian context, few today have the opportunity to escape safely.

Going Further: Humanitarian Corridors: Dangerous Paths

See also: What temporary protection is provided to people fleeing Ukraine?

Protecting civilians in Ukraine must be a top priority said Agnès Callamard. Before adding:Amnesty International will be closely monitoring the situation to condemn the violations of international law committed by all parties.. »


We call on all parties to strictly comply with international humanitarian law and international human rights law:

lives, homes and civilian infrastructure must be protected;

indiscriminate attacks and the use of prohibited weapons such as cluster munitions must not take place;

the access of humanitarian organizations to conflict zones must be allowed and facilitated in order to provide assistance to the civilian population;

humanitarian corridors must be carefully planned and protected.

Russian army: a long list of human rights violations

The Russian army has repeatedly violated the laws of international humanitarian law by failing to protect the civilian population, and even carried out deliberate attacks on the civilian population and civilian objects.

In Donbass, in the east of Ukraine in 2014-2015. At the height of the armed conflict in the region, where pro-Russian separatist forces confronted Ukrainian forces, all parties violated international humanitarian law. Inaccurate explosive weapons, in particular, were used in densely populated areas and in homes. Over a million people fled the fighting. More than 13,000 people died. “These episodes have torn communities and lives apart as the armed forces trampled on the rights of the civilian population with impunity.said Agnès Callamard, our general secretary.

in Syria from September to November 2015.we documented a series of Russian air strikes on residential areas in Homs, Idlib and Aleppo that killed at least 200 civilians.
In 2020
we have reported that the Russian air force has targeted schools and hospitals in Syria, which are sometimes listed as protected sites by the UN.

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