Documenting War Crimes in Ukraine

Application deadline: 
April 20, 2022

Keeping hope alive for justice amid mounting evidence of Russian atrocities against civilians, Ukrainian human rights defenders draw on their years of experience preparing cases for international courts on rights violations in Russian occupied territories.

As horrific images and reports of war crimes committed by Russian soldiers against Ukrainian civilians continue to emerge, shocking the conscious of Europe and the world, a coalition of leading Ukrainian human rights defenders and civil society groups are collecting evidence in order to preserve the hope of justice and a voice for victims.  

Tragically, they have a vast collective experience with this kind of work, if perhaps not on such an appalling scale. Among the 26 organisations composing the Ukraine 5 AM Coalition (a name referencing the hour of the morning on February 24th when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine) are groups that have been documenting war crimes and human rights abuses and advocating for victims in Russian occupied territories since Russia annexed Crimea and backed separatists in the Donbas region in 2014.

Tetiana Pechonchyk, head of Human Rights Centre Zmina, a memeber of the coalition documenting war crimes in Ukraine.

“The most important thing is that the documentation can be used later in a judicial process, meaning it has to be collected in accordance with international protocols”, said Tetiana Pechonchyk, head of coalition member organisation and grantee of the Prague Centre Human Rights Centre ZMINA. “There are a lot of groups collecting information about war crimes in Ukraine for journalistic or advocacy purposes, but this may not be admissible in a court, tribunal or other proceeding. For judicial purposes, the evidence has to be collected in a very specific way, not only in terms of the content and its verification, but how, when, and by whom it was collected and stored. There are many procedural points one must understand so that the documentation is usable”.

The Ukraine 5 AM Coalition has lawyers and other experienced professional staff collecting in-person testimony, as well as nearly 100 volunteers working with materials captured from social media and online sources. Volunteers are trained in the Berkley protocols, an internationally recognised common standard for collecting and verifying open source materials and evidence of war crimes like videos and photos from social media.

Using a platform specially designed for archiving digital evidence of human rights violations for use in international courts that has already been proven in Yemen, Syria and Sudan, trained volunteers capture and verify the data. Between volunteers and professional staff in the field, the Ukraine 5AM Coalition has documented over 600 cases of potential war crimes.

“Our approach is built on the experience of our previous work. We have lawyers working for the coalition who are well known for bringing cases before the European Court of Human Rights, the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice”, said Tetiana. “And now there are new mechanisms that didn’t exist before. We know how to cooperate with all of them”.  

As the war grinds on, the evidence of atrocities accumulates, and the complexity of holding Russian aggressors to account looms, one could easily become overwhelmed with the task. But thanks to the extensive experience of the coalition, there is ample reason to hope for justice.

--Emily Thompson

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