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UN experts find that war crimes have been committed in Ukraine

Investigators exhume the bodies at a site with numbered graves, as well as one mass grave in Izium, Ukraine, on Sept. 16.NICOLE TUNG/NYT

GENEVA — Russian soldiers have raped and tortured children in Ukraine, a United Nations-appointed panel of independent legal experts said in a damning statement Friday that concluded war crimes had been committed in the conflict.

A three-person Commission of Inquiry set up in April to investigate the conduct of hostilities in four areas of Ukraine laid out the graphic allegations in an unusually hard-hitting, 11-minute statement to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“The commission has documented cases in which children have been raped, tortured, and unlawfully confined,” the panel’s chair, Erik Mose, told the council.

He added, “Children have also been killed and injured in indiscriminate attacks with explosive weapons. The exposure to repeated explosions, crimes, forced displacement, and separation from family members deeply affected their well-being and mental health.”

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The report added more chilling allegations to the list of crimes widely reported by Ukrainian and international investigators probing the executions of civilians in Bucha and the mass burial site found near the town of Izium after it was recaptured by Ukrainian troops this month.

“Based on the evidence gathered by the commission, it has concluded that war crimes have been committed in Ukraine,” Mose said in his statement.

While numerous other reports have flagged the possibility or likelihood of war crimes, the commission had reached its conclusion based on evidence on the ground, Mose told reporters. He said the commission had not at this point concluded that violations amounted to crimes against humanity.

The commission found that some Russian troops had committed sexual and gender-based violence, with the victims ranging in age from 4 to 82.

“There are examples of cases where relatives were forced to witness the crimes,” Mose told the council, noting that the commission was documenting the actions of individual soldiers and had not found any general pattern of sexual violence as a war strategy.

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The commission’s findings were based on visits to 27 towns and settlements in the regions of Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy, and interviews with more than 150 victims and witnesses. Mose said the experts inspected sites of destruction, graves, and places of detention and torture.

“We were struck by the large number of executions in the areas that we visited,” Mose told the council, noting that common features of such killings included “prior detention, hands tied behind backs, gunshot wounds to the head and slit throats.”

The commission is investigating credible reports of many more executions in 16 towns and settlements, he added.

Mose, a Norwegian judge and former president of the international criminal tribunal that prosecuted perpetrators of Rwanda’s genocide, said that in interviews, witnesses provided consistent accounts of torture in detention facilities. Some victims said they had been taken to Russia and detained for weeks in prisons where they said they had been subjected to beatings, electric shocks, and forced nudity.

Two cases of ill treatment of Russian soldiers by Ukrainian forces were also documented, Mose said. “While few in numbers, such cases continue to be the subject of our attention,” he said.

Russia was not present in the council to hear the commission’s statement or respond to it.

Anton Korynevych, Ukraine’s ambassador-at-large, called for the creation of a special tribunal with specific jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute senior Russian leaders.

“We believe there has never been a more appropriate time to fill a glaring gap in the architecture of international criminal justice,” he said after the commission’s presentation.

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Mose said that the commission of inquiry will widen the scope of its investigation to look into filtration camps set up by Russian authorities, the forced transfer of Ukrainians and the conditions under which adoption of children by families in Russia is being expedited.

It also plans to investigate other alleged violations, such as the destruction of civilian infrastructure and the seizure or destruction of economic resources and will be making recommendations on criminal accountability to the UN Human Rights Council, he added.