A Ukrainian firefighter in Kyiv gives instructions as he extinguishes a fire on a house after shelling on the 17th day of the Russian invasion, Saturday, March 12, 2022. The Ukrainian government has opened a website to collect evidence of war crimes. Photo by Aris Messinis/Getty Images.
In Mariupol, doctors and patients were taken hostage by Russian soldiers, Ukrainian officials said. In the town of Rubizhne, Russian shelling destroyed three schools, a hospital, and an institution for visually impaired children. Around Kharkiv and its suburbs, artillery crashed into three high-rise buildings, two private houses, yards, markets, parks, a hospital, and a kindergarten.
And that’s just this week.
“Russian armed forces continue to launch missile strikes on civilians, cynically disregarding international humanitarian law,” Ukraine officials claimed in their Thursday, March 17, “war bulletin” provided to Coffee or Die Magazine. “Bombing and shelling by Russian forces damaged more than 411 educational institutions, 63 of which were completely destroyed.”
NEW: Officials in Mayor's office in #Mariupol say the bomb shelter under the theatre — where 1,000+ civilians were taking refuge — withstood Russia's aerial attack… and that people survived & are now being brought out.
But they still don't know how many casualties there are. pic.twitter.com/2BZcGgi6j2
— Nick Beake (@Beaking_News) March 17, 2022
Russian strikes and raids that might be classified as war crimes are now so numerous that the Ukraine Ministry of Culture and Information Policy has created a database to collect “proper documentation of war crimes against humanity and cultural heritage sites,” Ukrainian officials said.
“The materials can be used as evidence to prosecute those involved in crimes under Ukrainian law at the International Criminal Court in The Hague and a special tribunal,” according to Ukraine’s “war bulletin” from Tuesday.
The ministry listed four specific examples of war crimes it wants to document.
A day after a Russian strike on a maternity hospital in Mariupol sparked widespread condemnation, Vice President Kamala Harris called for an international war crimes investigation into the Russian invasion of Ukraine https://t.co/gjutdYl5qf pic.twitter.com/GsVdL0SncH
— Reuters (@Reuters) March 11, 2022
The International Criminal Court defines war crimes as “grave breaches of the Geneva conventions in the context of armed conflict and include, for instance, the use of child soldiers; the killing or torture of persons such as civilians or prisoners of war; intentionally directing attacks against hospitals, historic monuments, or buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes.”
Ukrainian officials are not alone in seeking to document evidence of possible war crimes in Ukraine.
In its most recent report, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) recorded 1,900 civilian casualties in Ukraine: 726 killed and 1,174 injured. Those figures include more than 50 children killed and more than 60 injured.
In its Thursday war bulletin, Ukraine counted 108 children killed and more than 120 wounded.
President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have both accused Putin of war crimes.
“I think he is a war criminal,” Biden said on Wednesday of Putin, using the term for the first time since Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine began, according to ABC News.
Thursday, Blinken said he believes war crimes have been committed in Ukraine.
“Yesterday, President Biden said that in his opinion, war crimes have been committed in Ukraine. Personally, I agree,” Blinken said, according to ABC. “Intentionally targeting civilians is a war crime. After all the destruction of the past few weeks, I find it difficult to conclude that the Russians are doing otherwise.”
Blinken, according to ABC, said State Department experts from the Office of Global Criminal Justice are collecting and reviewing evidence for a formal determination and will share findings with those charged with accountability.
The OHCHR said it was working to verify higher reported numbers but that most of the casualties it had verified so far “were caused by the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area, including shelling from heavy artillery and multiple-launch rocket systems, and missile and air strikes.”
However, the organization “believes that the actual figures are considerably higher, especially in government-controlled territory and especially in recent days.”
The people of #Ukraine are facing a catastrophic human rights crisis. Civilians are dying and already potential war crimes are being committed by Russian troops. We must unite to help protect the people of Ukraine.
Take action now ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/6al5ADjKCQ
— Amnesty International (@amnesty) March 2, 2022
The open-source investigation organization Bellingcat also announced plans Thursday to develop its own database of civilian damage in Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials cautioned that anyone attempting to document possible war crimes should first ensure that he and the scene are safe. He should take photos and videos that “capture the general appearance of the damaged object and the condition around the object.” Pictures can then be uploaded to the Ukraine Ministry of Culture and Information Policy’s war crime database website.
Update: This story has been updated with remarks by President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
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Howard Altman is a contributing writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the senior managing editor of Military Times and a military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM, and SOF writ large among many other topics. He is also on the advisory board of Military Veterans in Journalism. Email him [email protected]
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