How does Russia violate the International Humanitarian Law?

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On 24 February, Russia invaded Ukraine. Since then, more than 2 thousand Ukrainian people died. Russia has already committed war crimes and continues to do so by bombarding civilian buildings, shooting at noncombatants, using women and children as human shields. We would like to give you an insight into Russia’s breaches of IHL.

Indiscriminate attacks

The main “legal” goal of any war according to “jus in bello” is to destroy your enemy’s armed forces and military bases. However, as we’ve seen in Ukraine, Russian soldiers try not only to eliminate the Ukrainian Armed Forces and gain control over the country’s objects. Having come across Ukrainian resistance, Russians attempt to demoralize society by launching indiscriminate attacks,  which are not directed at a specific military objective. For example, they shell civilian buildings, attack kindergartens, hospitals, and maternity hospitals. It is prohibited by article 51 of the Additional Protocol I (1977) to the Geneva Convention (IV) on Civilians (1948). Ukraine’s seen quite a lot of indiscriminate attacks since the Russian full-scale invasion, but in this article, we can cover only a few of them.

Kyiv

Kyiv is the capital of Ukraine, and it is a city where all the most important decisions and actions are taken. That’s why the main goal for Russian soldiers is to conquer Kyiv, and that is the reason for their willingness to bombard everything in their way. Firstly, Ukrainians were stunned on the second day of the war when debris from “Grad” hit an orphanage with 50 kids in Vorzel. Hopefully, no one was injured since the children were in the other building. Secondly, occupiers attacked Vasylkiv with missile strikes and Bucha, destroying a lot of civilian buildings. Thirdly, residential districts and civilian buildings in Kyiv are attacked by Russian projectiles too. Russian missile hit a high rise in the sleeping district, creating a huge hole. Because of the bombing, people are forced to hide in cold cellars and bomb shelters.

Kharkiv

Kharkiv, which is an industrial center of Ukraine with the largest number of universities with foreign students, has been fiercely bombarded for the past few days. The Russian army fired Grad rockets at residential areas, leaving 11 people dead and 40 wounded on 28 February. Moreover, the researchers of the Conflict Intelligence Team assume that Russia has employed uncontrolled high-explosive aviation bombs at densely populated areas (previously seen in the war in Syria), the use of which can be regarded as a war crime. Kharkiv now is the place, which is bombarded the most. Its center has been devastated by cruise missiles, neighbourhoods are shelled for hours on end (for example, Saltivka). The city is said to have become the second Stalingrad battle of the XXI century.

Mariupol

Mariupol is another important flashpoint in the Russian-Ukrainian war in the East. According to the mayor and media “Svidomi”, the city lost 42 people due to the heavy shelling which lasted for 14 hours on 2 March. The Russian Army did not manage to occupy the city, thus it decided to target civilians to make them surrender. Civilian buildings in Chuhuiv, Chernihiv, Okhtyrka and many other cities have been attacked, too. Moreover, on 3 March Russian aviation bombarded high-rise buildings in Chernihiv, which led to 47 deaths and 18 wounded.

Another significant thing is that according to Article 16 of Geneva Convention (IV) on Civilians, “the wounded and sick, as well as the infirm, and expectant mothers, shall be the object of particular protection and respect”. However, Russia has disregarded expectant mothers’ well-being by bombarding or hitting maternity hospitals at least three times. The first one came under projectile attack in Kyiv the second in Mariupol, and the third suffered from an airstrike in Zhytomyr, which also destroyed 10 residential houses and killed 2 civilians.

According to Zalyzhnyi, Commander-in-Chief of Armed Forces of Ukraine, for 28 February Russia launched 113 cursed missiles of Iskander and Kalibr types on peaceful cities, towns, and villages of Ukraine, which is a severe violation of IHL. Here is the photo.

Obstructing the work of humanitarian missions

According to article 23 of the Geneva Convention (IV) on Civilians, “Each High Contracting Party shall allow the free passage of all consignments of medical and hospital stores … intended only for civilians of another High Contracting Party”. In Volnovakha Russians don’t comply with this article, shooting the town and taking away the opportunity to deliver bread and water for civilians. Now the city is believed to be on the verge of a humanitarian crisis. Moreover, according to the minister on the issues regarding reintegration of the occupied territories Iryna Vereshchuk, Russians launched an attack with “Grad” on a humanitarian mission, which was evacuating civilians. This can also be considered as a war crime according to ICC Statute 8(2)(b)(iii), since there were intentional attacks against vehicles involved in humanitarian assistance. Mariupol, which we’ve mentioned above, is also in an extremely difficult position and is close to a humanitarian catastrophe. People don’t have electricity, access to water, and the Internet. According to the City Council, the Russian Armed Forces destroyed bridges, smashed trains so that the City Council would not be able to take women, children, and elderly people out of Mariupol.

Perfidy

Russian Armed Forces hang white flags, pretending to surrender and to have peaceful intentions. Then they start shooting civilians and soldiers, willing to kill and wound them by resorting to perfidy. Perfidy is prohibited by article 37 of Additional Protocol I. Misleading people by using white flags with belligerent intentions is one of the types of perfidy and can be regarded as a war crime if it results in death or serious personal injury (ICC Statute Article 8(2)(b)(vii)). Besides, the Russian Armed Forces disguised themselves as the Ukrainian Armed Forces by using their military uniform. Such act is as well prohibited according to article 39 (2) of Additional Protocol I.

Pillage

According to article 33 of the Geneva Convention (IV) on Civilians, pillage is prohibited. Nevertheless, there is a lot of evidence of Russian forces robbing the supermarkets in Ukrainian cities, stealing safes from banks, and taking away civilians’ goods. Also, Russians tried to seize a telephone from a citizen in Berdiansk, and after his rejection, he was shot dead.

Human shields

Russian soldiers are believed to use Ukrainian civilians as human shields as a way to protect themselves from Ukrainian Armed Forces and move forward. It is prohibited by Article 28 of Geneva Convention (IV) on Civilians and article 51(7) by Additional Protocol I, which claims that “The Parties to the conflict shall not direct the movement of the civilian population or individual civilians in order to attempt to shield military objectives from attacks or to shield military operations”. Cases of using civilians as human shields have been spotted in Kherson and the General Staff of Armed Forces in Ukraine also confirmed this phenomenon.

Cultural objects

International Humanitarian Law also protects cultural heritage. According to Hague Convention 1954, Rule 38 and 40 of Customary International Humanitarian Law, each party to the conflict must protect and respect cultural property. However, Russians caused irreversible damage to The Museum of Local History in Ivankiv town in Kyiv Region by setting it on fire. As a result, they destroyed 25 paintings by a well-known Ukrainian folk artist Mariia Pryimachenko who was praised by Picasso himself. Besides, the Former cinema of Shchors and today’s youth center were ruined by a missile strike in Chernihiv.

In conclusion, Russia continues to conceal its violation of the rules and principles of international law. The disparities between Humanitarian Law in the treaties and upholding Humanitarian Law in practice could not have been greater and more exponential. Russia has already demonstrated a blatant disregard for people’s lives and showed what steps it is willing to take to destroy Ukraine.


Article is provided by representatives of Kyiv-Mohyla University who have made their services available to provide accurate, timely, on-the-ground reporting about the war in Ukraine, including nuanced localized ongoing updates on what is happening across the country, as well as commentary and analysis.

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