Both the United Nations and the European Parliament denounce horrific war crimes. The youngest victim is 4, the oldest is 82.
by Willy Fautré
Rape and sexual assault attributed to Moscow’s forces in Ukraine are part of a Russian “military strategy” and a “deliberate tactic to dehumanise the victims,” UN envoy Pramila Patten told AFP in an interview on October 14. She was echoing an alarming message voiced 24 hours earlier during a hearing held at the European Parliament by the FEMM Committee for Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, chaired by MEP Radka Maxovà (Czechia) from the Political Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats.
As of June 3, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) had received reports of 124 alleged acts of conflict-related sexual abuse across Ukraine.
In June, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) released a report covering the period from 24 February until 15 May 2022, in which Matilda Bogner, the head of the UN body, noted that she had received numerous allegations and had been able to verify 23 cases of sexual violence, including cases of rape, gang rape, torture, forced public stripping, and threats of sexual violence.
La Strada Ukraine, a well-known human rights organization, learned through their helpline about 17 victims of sexual violence and rape: one man and 16 women, three of whom were teenagers.
In her interview with AFP, Pramila Patten, who is the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, made reference to the recent findings of UN investigators in Ukraine. In September, they visited 27 cities and towns in the Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy regions, and interviewed about 150 victims who were abused by the Russian occupiers.
Their list of war crimes includes a separate item—sexual violence. The youngest victim of the Russians, the UN team said, is only four years old, and the oldest one is 82. “The Commission documented cases of rape, torture and illegal detention of children. There are examples of cases when relatives were forced to witness crimes,”—the Commission said.
These statistics are only fragmentary, and might even be misleading because the magnitude of the phenomenon could be underestimated.
It is already difficult for a victim in times of peace to reveal such a traumatizing experience. This is all the more difficult in times of war. It means that testimonies collected by the UN, the ICC or the Red Cross would only represent a tiny portion of the magnitude of the tragedy. The statistics will never reflect the reality. Sexual violence is a silent and hidden crime that is largely underreported. A huge number of cases will fall through the cracks as millions of Ukrainian women fled to EU countries, were displaced internally, or were deported to Russia in unknown conditions. Moreover, the war is still raging in the occupied territories of Ukraine.
That is the reason why Patten had already declared at the UN Security Council on 6 June after her visit to Ukraine in early May: “We do not need hard data for a scaled-up humanitarian response, nor for all parties to put in place preventive measures.”
She also warned against waiting too long to act, saying “An active battleground is never conducive to accurate ‘book-keeping’ […] if we wait for hard data and statistics, it will always be too late.” She called on the international community to mobilize immediately and prioritize support for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence.
Accountability and prosecution
On 14 July 2022, amid evidence of rape and other forms of sexual violence committed by Russian forces in Ukraine, the foreign affairs minister of the Netherlands, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and the EU Commissioner for Justice hosted the Ukraine Accountability Conference.
At that conference, 45 countries adopted a statement strongly condemning the use of sexual violence as a method of warfare in Ukraine, and underlining the need for specialized support and gender-responsive treatment for survivors.
Despite the challenges, Ukraine has already started going after perpetrators. In May, former Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova posted a picture of a Russian soldier whom she identified as a suspect in several rapes committed in the Kyiv region. She described how the soldier, together with other servicemen, broke twice into local homes and raped women.
In June, Ukrainian prosecutors launched their first trial (in absentia) of a Russian soldier, Mikhail Romanov (32), accused of rape. The main witness in the case is also the victim, who accused the soldier of killing her husband and then repeatedly raping her. This trial is the first of what could be dozens of such cases.
For the moment, Ukrainian law enforcement officers have opened more than twenty criminal proceedings on sexual violence committed by the Russian military. But these figures are just the tip of the iceberg.
No to impunity!
I was invited to the already mentioned hearing held at the European Parliament by the FEMM Committee for Women’s Rights and Gender Equality and chaired by MEP Radka Maxovà.
After exposing the magnitude of sexual abuses and rapes perpetrated by Russian soldiers against not only women and young girls but also boys and men—some were sexually tortured, mutilated and castrated—I proposed to the numerous decision-makers participating in the work of the FEMM Committee, members of the Parliament, representatives of the political groups, and political analysts, a number of priority guidelines to be taken into consideration:
- to ensure that this issue of sexual abuse and rapes is not shrouded in silence or normalized by impunity, and is explicitly addressed in the framework of any possible ceasefire agreement or peace talks;
- to ensure that amnesties for sexual violence crimes are explicitly prohibited in any negotiations between the aggressed country and the aggressor;
- to take the necessary measures to prevent sexual violence;
- to ensure that survivors of sexual violence, as well as their children, have access to adequate services, including sexual and reproductive health, psychological, legal, socio-economic services;
- to prevent and address the risks of trafficking in persons for sexual exploitation or prostitution.
The international legal frameworks exist, the policies based on past experience in other conflict settings exist, the political will exists to seek, provide and analyze evidence, and the prosecution mechanisms exist. Impunity cannot and should not prevail, even if it takes years or decades to identify, hunt, and arrest the perpetrators as it was the case with the Nazi criminals of World War II.