Ukraine war crimes: The chase is on in a conflict rich with evidence


The war in Ukraine, more than any conflict before, is on the record. With 70% of the country online, anyone connected can watch the war through civilian smartphones. Anyone, including war crime investigators.

A coalition of international investigators has come to document alleged war crimes in Ukraine. And the near-ubiquitous open-source information available online, from satellite images of cluster-bomb hits to TikTok videos of Russian troop buildups, may bring a rarity for these investigations: prosecution of specific perpetrators.

Why We Wrote This

War crimes investigators – mobilized on the ground in Ukraine and at desks and laboratories around the world to gather and process evidence – inspire hope for justice, and possibly deterrence of further crimes as the war drags on.

“It’s impossible today to conduct any small-scale, let alone large-scale, military operation or to violate human rights in any way of sufficient size … without outing yourself and who you are,” says Scott Edwards, senior adviser for crisis response at Amnesty International.

Belkis Wille, a Human Rights Watch investigator in Lviv, met a family who’d watched the bombardment of Kharkiv. The youngest, barely 2 years old, was so devastated he no longer wanted to see, and for 24 hours since the family fled had barely opened his eyes.

Ms. Wille appreciates the swift international willingness to “see” this war: “That’s given me a lot of hopefulness in the work that we were able to do, and that we’re going to continue to be doing.”

Washington

Belkis Wille met a boy who wouldn’t open his eyes at a shelter in Lviv, Ukraine. There, she was recording potential war crimes for Human Rights Watch and had started interviewing the boy’s mother, a beauty salon owner whose face wore new lines of stress and exhaustion.

The day before, the boy, his mother, and his grandmother had fled Kharkiv amid shelling. His father and grandfather stayed in case they needed to fight. Leaving on the train, all three generations of this family watched their home city being bombarded, as their own apartment had been. The youngest, barely 2 years old, had decided he no longer wanted to see. 

“Look at my son,” his mother told Ms. Wille. “He hasn’t opened his eyes since we left Kharkiv.”

Why We Wrote This

War crimes investigators – mobilized on the ground in Ukraine and at desks and laboratories around the world to gather and process evidence – inspire hope for justice, and possibly deterrence of further crimes as the war drags on.

Ms. Wille listened and asked for more details, talking next to 20 or so other Ukrainians who had just reached Lviv and needed a place to rest. When they finished, she had three more pages in her notebook to archive on her laptop that night at the long kitchen table in her apartment, where she and her team worked into the late hours.   

Ms. Wille, speaking to the Monitor by phone, is a senior conflict researcher for Human Rights Watch. Those pages were just three out of the hundreds her team – conducting more than 150 interviews over three weeks – compiled in Ukraine in March. From those interviews, they wrote reports on human rights abuses and war crimes that Ms. Wille hopes will help hold the Russian military accountable. 



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