Human Rights Watch: Donetsk Prisoner Parade is a War Crime

On the 23rd anniversary of Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union, August 24th, militants in Donetsk paraded a few dozen Ukrainian prisoners down the city’s main thoroughfare, grimly mocking a military parade in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. A few hundred onlookers jeered, cursed, spit, and threw vegetables at the hand-cuffed and head-bowed prisoners. Trucks followed them, symbolically cleaning the street behind them by spraying water on the asphalt.

The spectacle wasn’t just gut-wrenching and humiliating; it might also be a war crime, according to human rights activists.

This wasn’t the first time that pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists have humiliated and abused Ukrainian citizens. International non-governmental organizations have already accused the armed pro-Russian groups of serious human rights abuses. In July, the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission to Ukraine reported that Russian-supported militants have committed abuses such as unlawful abductions, torture, and extrajudicial executions. The report also stated that pro-Russians forces have used civilians as shields, purposely placing themselves in populated areas next to civilians. Speaking at a press conference in Kyiv, the head of the UN mission to Ukraine, Armen Harutyunyan, stated that the “armed [pro-Russian] groups are placing themselves among populated zones, and this is increasing the number of civilian casualties.” The UN findings were excoriated by the Russian government, which accused the international organization of biases. Now, following the humiliating parade of captured Ukrainian servicemen in Donetsk, human rights organizations are again accusing the pro-Russian militants of committing war crimes.

Ole Solvang, a senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch, wrote on the HRW website that the Donetsk incident is a violation of the Geneva Conventions’ common article 3, which prohibits the humiliating treatment of prisoners. “This parade is a clear violation of that absolute prohibition, and may be considered a war crime,” he wrote.

Article 3 of the Geneva Convention delineates the laws of war in “the case of armed conflict not of an international character.” The International Committee of the Red Cross and other organizations have referred to the conflict in Ukraine as a non-international internal conflict, even while the Ukrainian government and its Western supporters have said that the war is an international one because of Russia’s direct participation and support for hostilities. Clause 1 of Article 3 clearly states that “persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms,” cannot be subject to “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.” To a fair observer the parade of unarmed and surrendered prisoners were almost certainly victimized by “humiliating and degrading treatment.”

The parade was not only deeply humiliating, which is already a war crime in of itself, but also potentially dangerous in that it exposed the captured servicemen to potential vigilante violence. The Russian government is apparently unfazed by the display. Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, remarked that he saw nothing disturbing in the parade. “I have not seen anything that even resembled close to mockery,” he said, before deflecting attention to Russian accusations of war crimes by Ukrainian nationalist group Pravyi Sektor [Right Sector – Eng].

This week, the New York Times also showed to the world the mistreatment of a local Donbas woman accused of allegedly spying for the Ukrainian army. Militants in Donetsk wrapped the middle-aged woman in a Ukrainian flag and tied her to a sign post. A passer-by was photographed kicking and spitting at her. Others reportedly treated the victim the same way, blaming her for the killed civilians in the city.  A pro-Russian militant hinted that she would deserve whatever might happen to her.

The uncomfortable reality is that these abuses and war crime violations are likely to increase in severity as long as the war continues unabated. Following the failure of the peace talks in Minsk, a renewed Russian-supported offensive, and the capture of uniformed Russian servicemen on Ukrainian territory, the prospect of peace seems further and further away.   Fear begets violence, and the longer the war drags on people will increasingly succumb to dehumanizing others. The militants will continue to blame spies, traitors, and a fifth column. Ukrainian forces will continue to fight and become increasingly hardened themselves. The militants’ actions in recent days are meant to accelerate this process and make peace and reconciliation insurmountable. Public militant abuses of captured Ukrainian servicemen and civilians are designed to harden and divide Ukrainian society as a whole, driving Ukrainians to blame the Donbas as a whole rather than the relatively small number of perpetrators. Although the aims and outcomes of the ongoing direct Russian invasion of southeastern Ukraine are still unclear, the current escalation bodes extremely poorly for a speedy conclusion to the conflict, despite the deepest level of concern of the West. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian civilians continue to suffer.

Chris Dunnett, Ukraine Crisis Media Center