Russia may have committed war crimes by killing civilians and destroying hospitals in its bombardment of Ukrainian cities, the top United Nations human rights official has said in her strongest comments yet on the conflict.
Addressing the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Wednesday, Michelle Bachelet urged Russia to end its five-week invasion, adding that the entire population of Ukraine had been “enduring a living nightmare”.
“Homes and administrative buildings, hospitals and schools, water stations and electricity systems have not been spared,” she said. “Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited under international humanitarian law and may amount to war crimes.”
Bachelet said her office had received credible allegations Russian forces had used cluster munitions in populated areas at least 24 times. Her office was also investigating alleged use of cluster munitions by Ukraine.
Russia has denied using such weapons or targeting civilians since launching on February 24 what it calls a “special operation” to disarm and “denazify” its neighbour.
Bachelet said her office, which deploys nearly 60 UN monitors in Ukraine, had verified 77 incidents in which medical facilities were damaged, including 50 hospitals.
She said her office had verified 1,189 civilian deaths in Ukraine, including 98 children since the start of the invasion. But she warned that the true toll was surely far higher, pointing out that her staff had little access to verify casualties in some of the hardest-hit areas.
Those include the besieged and devastated southern port city of Mariupol, where Bachelet said that “people are living in sheer terror”.
Ukrainian ambassador Yevheniia Filipenko thanked Bachelet for describing “in appalling details the horrors of Russia’s assault on Ukraine and the war crimes committed”.
She hit out at Moscow’s “vicious methods” and warned that Moscow’s “flagrant violation of the UN Charter and fundamental principles of international law” would “have long-lasting implications for the future of the world order and humanity”.
US human rights envoy Michele Taylor said she was alarmed by reports of abductions by Russia’s forces, including at least three mayors and forced deportations of civilians.
“It is clear that President Putin is hell-bent on reducing Ukraine’s towns and cities to dust,” added British ambassador Simon Manley.
In her speech, Bachelet also expressed concern at videos circulating on social media showing interrogations of prisoners of war by both Ukrainian and Russian forces.
Yaroslav Eremin, first secretary at Russia’s UN mission in Geneva, alleged abuses by Ukraine’s forces, whom he accused of torturing prisoners, using residents as human shields in Mariupol and killing 21 civilians with cluster munitions in Donetsk.
“In publicly available footage near Kharkiv, unarmed Russians have been shot on the kneecaps, they’ve got plastic bags on their heads, some of them are unconscious,” he added.
“All these atrocities against civilians were carried out with the use of weaponry supplied by the Western countries.”