Ukraine: Russian Forces Executed Surrendering Ukraine Soldiers, Says HRW

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Russian forces appear to have executed at least 15 Ukrainian soldiers as they attempted to surrender, and possibly six more who were surrendering or who had surrendered, since early December 2023, Human Rights Watch said. These incidents should be investigated as war crimes.

“Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, its forces have committed many heinous war crimes,” said Belkis Wille, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch. “The summary execution – or murder – of surrendering and injured Ukrainian soldiers, gunned down in cold blood, expressly forbidden under international humanitarian law, is also included in that shameful legacy.”

Human Rights Watch investigated three instances of the apparent summary execution of at least 12 Ukrainian soldiers by verifying and analyzing drone footage posted on social media on December 2 and December 27, and on February 25, 2024. In these cases, the soldiers demonstrated a clear intent to surrender and, since they were no longer taking part in hostilities, were considered hors de combat and not targetable under international humanitarian law, or the laws of war.

Human Rights Watch verified the location of two of the three incidents based on the footage, but due to the lack of geographic details in the videos, was unable to determine the exact location of the third. Human Rights Watch was unable to verify which party operated the drone that captured the footage in these cases.

Human Rights Watch investigated a fourth instance by analyzing another video clip posted on social media on February 19 showing two Russian soldiers executing three surrendering and unarmed Ukrainian soldiers. Although the account that posted the clip stated the location of the incident, Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify the location independently.

For the fifth incident, the investigation relied on an interview with a Ukrainian soldier, a video posted to a Telegram channel on February 16, and in-depth media coverage including interviews with family members of one of the victims. The information suggests that six soldiers were executed in the incident, though the circumstances were less clear.

In one of the five incidents, on February 25, verified drone footage shared widely online including on X (formerly known as Twitter) shows at least seven Ukrainian soldiers exiting a dugout among some trees between two fields, removing their body armor, at least one soldier removing their helmet, and all lying face down as five Russian soldiers aim their guns at them. The Russian soldiers are identifiable by distinctive red tape markings around the arms and legs. Three Russian soldiers then shoot toward the clearly surrendered Ukrainian soldiers from behind and both sides.

Six of the Ukrainian soldiers remain face down, visibly reacting to the impact of the shots, while one attempts to reenter the dugout but is shot before he is able to. The incident took place near Ivanivske village in the Donetska region. The location was first verified by EjShahid, a volunteer for GeoConfirmed, and subsequently confirmed by Human Rights Watch researchers.

The apparent executions do not appear to be isolated instances. Human Rights Watch also identified Russian drone footage posted on February 5, 2024, capturing a separate battlefield moment. In that incident, Human Rights Watch could not determine whether the Ukrainian soldiers surrendered, but a male voice heard in the clip, which appears to be credible, apparently provides commands to Russian soldiers on the battlefield in the Donetska region. The voice says in Russian, “take no prisoners, shoot everyone.” Audiovisual analysis of the footage supports the conclusion that the drone is Russian.

report published in March 2023 by the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine documented Russian armed forces and Wagner Group executions of 15 Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) during the first year of the full-scale invasion. In its February to July 2023 periodic report, the UN documented the summary execution of six Ukrainian POWs. A follow-up report published in March 2024, covering the three previous months, identified 12 reported episodes of executions of at least 32 captured POWs or people hors de combat. The UN independently verified three of the latter incidents, involving seven Ukrainian soldiers.

On April 9, the Ukraine Prosecutor General’s Office said it was conducting 27 criminal investigations into the execution of 54 Ukrainian POWs. The Prosecutor General’s Office told Human Rights Watch it was unable to share more information about these cases but referenced three notices of suspicion it had issued against Russian soldiers for extrajudicial executions, one of which resulted in a court ruling in absentia, and a recent statement references a fourth. The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine documented instances in which Ukrainian armed forces have abused Russian POWs duringthe full-scale invasion.

Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on April 22, asking for details into the incidents described above, as well as any orders to Russian forces to kill instead of capture surrendering Ukrainian soldiers. It has received no response.

International humanitarian law, or the laws of war, requires parties to an international armed conflict to treat armed forces who are hors de combat and those in custody, who become prisoners of war, humanely in all circumstances. It is a war crime to willfully kill, mistreat, or torture these forces. An order to kill prisoners of war or to execute surrendering soldiers rather than capture them, known as no quarter to be given, is strictly prohibited under international humanitarian law. Such orders violate Russia’s international humanitarian law, or laws of war, obligations as well as its own military statutes, and both issuing such an order and carrying it out are war crimes.

In addition to being bound by international humanitarian law, Russia is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which strictly forbids extrajudicial killings.

Russia also has an obligation under international humanitarian law to investigate and prosecute alleged war crimes by its forces or those committed on the territory it controls. However, extensive Human Right Watch documentation of international humanitarian law violations in ChechnyaGeorgiaSyria, and Ukraine over more than three decades clearly demonstrates that Russia has been unwilling to prosecute war crimes and other violations of international law committed by its forces.

“While each of these cases is horrifying, perhaps what is most damning is the evidence indicating in at least one case that Russian forces explicitly gave orders to kill soldiers instead of letting them surrender, thereby endorsing war crimes,” Wille said.

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