One Year On, Ukraine is a ‘Crime Scene’ – But Ensuring Accountability is Almost Impossible
Two residents stand in the ruins of residential apartments in Borodianka in the Kyiv region

On the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the international community is grappling with how to hold Russia accountable for war crimes, while many Ukrainians are struggling mentally and physically. 

“Ukraine is a crime scene,” Karim Khan, Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), told a United Nations (UN) session on the war in Ukraine on Wednesday.

ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan addressing the UN this week.

The ICC had been asked to investigate Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which started a year ago on 24 February 2022, and Khan visited various Ukrainian cities last May. There he saw civilians being bombed and body bags, and heard testimony from girls and women who had been raped and ex-prisoners of war who had been tortured by Russian soldiers.

Khan said that there were “reasonable grounds” for prosecution under the Rome Statute – the treaty that established the ICC to investigate genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression.

Late Thursday, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution reiterating its demand that Russia “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine and called for a cessation of hostilities”. Only seven member states – Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, Mali, Nicaragua, Russia and Syria – voted against the resolution, with 141 states in favour and 32 abstentions including China, India, Pakistan and large parts of Africa.

Back in September, the Independent International Commission of Enquiry on Ukraine, established by the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR), also reported that there were “reasonable grounds to conclude that an array of war crimes, violations of human rights and international humanitarian law have been committed in Ukraine”. 

The Commission reported “summary executions, unlawful confinement, torture, ill-treatment, rape and other sexual violence committed in areas occupied by Russian armed forces across the four regions on which it focused”. 

Given the gravity of the identified violations, there is an “undeniable need for accountability”, the commission added.

While Russian soldiers are responsible for the “vast majority of the violations identified, including war crimes”, Ukrainian forces had also violated international humanitarian law in some cases, including two incidents that qualify as war crimes, the commission reported.

The UN resolution on Ukraine also calls for “accountability for the most serious crimes under international law committed on the territory of Ukraine through appropriate, fair and independent investigations and prosecutions at the national or international level”.

Collecting evidence of war crimes

However, ensuring accountability is not going to be easy. The ICC has been assisted by forensic investigators from the Netherlands who are helping to “collect evidence to the highest international standards”, said Khan.

The ICC is also working with the European Union (EU) Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation (Eurojust), which has set up a joint investigative team to investigate war crimes in Ukraine, as well as the Genocide Network, a European network of jurists specialising in international crimes.

“There is no space for spectators in this battle of conscience… It is imperative that the law is rendered effective in this critical moment of world affairs,” said Khan.

However, ensuring that Russian war criminals are tried and convicted will be almost impossible unless there is a regime change. Russia withdrew from the Rome Statute in 2016 after the ICC ruled that its activity in Crimea amounted to an “ongoing occupation”. Travel bans on key leaders make it unlikely that the culprits will leave Russia.

Access to abortion for refugees in Poland

A year into the war, the physical and mental suffering of Ukrainians is immense. By the end of 2022, 18 million Ukrainians needed humanitarian help, with 14.5 million people needing health assistance.

About eight million Ukrainians are refugees, dependent primarily on neighbouring countries for their survival.

This week, a number of Members of the European Parliament expressed concern for Ukranian women who had fled to Poland, which does not allow abortion except if a woman’s life is in danger, or in cases of rape or incest.   

According to the UN, more than one and a half million Ukrainians have fled to Poland. Ukrainian women and girls who have been raped by Russian soldiers are among the millions of people who have fled to Poland. Now they find themselves in a country that harshly restricts access to reproductive healthcare, including abortion,” the MEPs noted.

They asked the European Commission how it would “ensure that Ukrainian women and girls who have become pregnant as a result of rape have access to reproductive healthcare, including abortion, in accordance with Polish law”.

Kyiv residents queue for water in the street after water infrastructure was destroyed by Russian bombings.

Health, power and water facilities bombed

By the end of 2022, 763 healthcare facilities had been attacked, and half of the health facilities in Donetska, Zaporizka, Mykolaivska and Kharkivska oblasts are either partially or completely non-functional, according to the WHO Surveillance System

The continual bombing has destroyed power and water supplies, making it difficult for hospitals to function as well as undermining people’s health.

Approximately 9.6 million people in Ukraine may have a mental health condition, according to the WHO. This is based on previous research on those caught in war and conflict, which shows that almost a quarter (22%) develop depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. 

“From overcoming war trauma, to social isolation, to daily struggles without power and heating, to displacement-related challenges and more, the consequences of the war are expected to cause mental health problems for at least five years after the war ends,” says the global health body.

Retreating Russian forces have also mined land, and Ukraine estimates that 30% of the country’s land is contaminated by mines. 

Future geopolitical relations

The war has caused a global realignment, with an isolated Russia working hard to win new allies. India’s trade with Russia has increased by 400%, largely fueled by the sales of discounted crude oil while many African countries are being courted by Russia, including South Africa which has hosted Russian warships in the past few months in violation of US-imposed sanctions.

Ukraine is actively seeking membership of the European Union and has to satisfy an EU seven-point checklist of anti-corruption and judicial reforms – which explains the recent government investigations and dismissals.

Meanwhile, Europeans are increasingly anxious about the war, according to a recent Eurobarometer survey Some 85% of Germans and 82% of French are “very concerned” about the situation in Ukraine, while almost 80% of Poles believe that the war threatens their security.

However, US President Joe Biden’s visit to Kyiv this week to show solidarity with Ukraine, Europe’s discussion of joint arms procurement for the country, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to pull out of a nuclear pact with the US, point to a hardening of attitudes, and the likelihood that the war will drag on.

Image Credits: Oleksandr Ratushniak/ UNOCHA, Matteo Minasi/ UNOCHA.

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