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Category: International Issues Published On: Saturday, 19 March 2022 Total Comments: 0 Total View: 374

More than 450 civilians were reportedly killed or injured in the first 11 days of the war, in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, as a result of Russian airstrikes and artillery shelling of populated areas, Human Rights Watch said today. The attacks damaged civilian buildings, including apartment blocks, schools, places of worship, and shops, impeding access to food and medicines. They also damaged infrastructure in the city causing civilians to lose vital services such as electricity, heat, and water.

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More than 450 civilians were reportedly killed or injured in the first 11 days of the war, in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, as a result of Russian airstrikes and artillery shelling of populated areas, Human Rights Watch said today. The attacks damaged civilian buildings, including apartment blocks, schools, places of worship, and shops, impeding access to food and medicines. They also damaged infrastructure in the city causing civilians to lose vital services such as electricity, heat, and water.

Human Rights Watch identified Russian use of cluster munitions and explosive weapons with wide-area effect in heavily populated areas in Kharkiv, in apparent indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks. Indiscriminate shelling in heavily populated areas violates international humanitarian law and may constitute a war crime.

“In Kharkiv, Russian military forces showed disregard for civilian lives through repeated apparent indiscriminate attacks in populated areas,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe, and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Russia’s military may believe they can disregard the laws of war in their assault on Kharkiv, but the International Criminal Court has jurisdiction over war crimes committed in Kharkiv and there will be accountability for those responsible.”

According to Kharkiv regional police, between February 24 and March 7, 2022, a total of 133 civilians were killed, 5 of them children, and 319 civilians were wounded. One of the attacks Human Rights Watch documented killed a man as he was waiting in line outside a supermarket; another killed two people who had apparently just emerged from a shelter to get water.

A spokesperson for the Kharkiv mayor’s office told Human Rights Watch that as of March 4, approximately 500,000 people remained in the city, from a pre-war population of 1.8 million.

“People are leaving Kharkiv ‘empty,’” a resident told Human Rights Watch. “They don’t pack bags or take their things. They grab their documents and each other and they flee.” Those who remain have endured intermittent heat at best, as outside temperatures have ranged between 2 and -4 Celsius, as well as shortages of food, water, and essential medicines.

Yuri Sydorenka, the head of the External Affairs Department of Kharkiv’s mayor’s office, said that as of March 3 the city was experiencing major medicine shortages: “So far, we have some ways to get medication in, but we need more.” On March 7 the deputy head of the Health Ministry’s Kharkiv office, Zhanna Strogaya, told Human Rights Watch that at least 14 healthcare facilities had been damaged, 9 of them seriously.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 29 people, including Kharkiv residents, medical workers, volunteers assisting with evacuation, and municipal officials, about the attacks. Human Rights Watch verified and analyzed 29 videos and 41 photographs posted on Telegram, Twitter, Facebook, or TikTok, and another 2 videos and 18 photographs sent directly to researchers to corroborate witness testimony and to identify additional impact sites and damage.

The attacks Human Rights Watch documented took place between February 24 and March 5. They damaged or destroyed residential buildings, schools, market stalls, churches, stores, hospitals, university departments, and other civilian infrastructure throughout the city. The Ukrainian human rights group Truth Hounds also documented many of these attacks.

“Our city center is being erased,” one Kharkiv resident told Human Rights Watch.

Sydorenka, said that on March 2 alone, Russian shelling killed 34 people and injured 285. Ten of the injured are children. He also said that the attacks damaged hundreds of apartment buildings and disrupted the city’s water and power supply, leaving about 300 apartment buildings without electricity.

A 45-year-old woman who was living in Kharkiv’s southeast Industrialny district, on March 2 said, “Where I live, there is no internet, no hot water, we had no heating for several days. I only have the food I bought before the crisis started. Everything is closed, there is no bread.”

Several people said that the basements, underground parking lots, and other facilities used as bomb shelters were freezing cold, and when sheltering in them, civilians had little access to basic needs such as food and water. A man from Saltivka, a large residential area in Kharkiv’s northeast, said that his family spent six nights in an unheated basement in sub-zero temperature, with little food and water. “It was so cold that I started having seizures,” he said. “The stores are running low on food and water, you can still buy Coca-Cola but that’s about it.”

Many people also shared their fears that their apartment building infrastructure was not safe. “There are water pipes in our basements and there is a danger that a water pipe might burst,” one woman said. Another said that she did not take shelter in the basement, because she was worried that the building would collapse and they would be “buried under the rubble.” “It is safer in the flat,” she said. She and her four-year-old son were taking shelter in the bathroom on the fourth floor of her apartment building.

Dozens of educational facilities, including schools and preschools, were damaged or destroyed in the first week of the war, Sydorenka said. Human Rights Watch documented damage to eight schools and two university departments.

Under international humanitarian law parties to an armed conflict have obligations to distinguish at all times between civilians and combatants, between civilian objects and military objectives, and to take precautions to protect civilians and other non-combatants from the hazards of war. Failure to observe the principle of distinction, in particular by directing an attack against civilians or civilian objects or conducting indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks, constitutes a war crime when committed deliberately or recklessly. Unlawful and wanton excessive destruction of property that is not militarily justified, is also a war crime.

Human Rights Watch was not able to conduct on-site visits in Kharkiv and used interviews with witnesses and images from the damage to try to identify the types of weapons Russian forces used in the attacks documented. This analysis demonstrates that in addition to cluster munitions, Russian forces used explosive weapons with wide-area effect.

The use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas heightens the likelihood of unlawful, indiscriminate, and disproportionate attacks. These weapons have a large destructive radius, are inherently inaccurate, or deliver multiple munitions at the same time. Long-term effects of their use include damage to civilian buildings and critical infrastructure, interference with services such as health care and education, and displacement of the local population. Russia and Ukraine should avoid using explosive weapons in populated areas. Every country, including Russia and Ukraine, should support a strong political declaration that includes a commitment to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effect in populated areas.

Russian and Ukrainian forces should make all efforts to ensure that adequate supplies and humanitarian assistance are able to reach civilians in and around Kharkiv, and every country and intergovernmental organization should press both parties to abide by their international humanitarian law obligations and ensure access to humanitarian assistance and safe passage for civilian evacuations. The parties should allow access to neutral and independent humanitarian aid providers so they can offer support to vulnerable civilians who may need assistance to leave, including people with disabilities, older people, pregnant people, children, and people with chronic or severe medical conditions. If an agreement to establish humanitarian corridors is reached and put into effect, the parties should not breach that agreement in any way that places civilians at risk.

The International Criminal Court has opened an investigation into the situation in Ukraine. The extensive civilian losses and damage in Kharkiv underline the importance of the court’s scrutiny on the lawfulness of the attacks on the city. The Commission of Inquiry established on March 4 by the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva should also investigate alleged unlawful attacks in Kharkiv.

“Our assessment points to multiple indiscriminate attacks in the first 11 days of hostilities in Kharkiv, and media reports indicate that Russia has carried out further indiscriminate attacks harming civilians as fighting continues in Kharkiv and elsewhere,” Williamson said. “Russia should immediately abide by its obligations to avoid and minimize civilian harm, and not lose sight of the fact that multiple international investigations are underway to hold those who don’t meet their obligations to account.”

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