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U.N. Human Rights Council votes to deepen Ukraine war crimes inquiry

A view of new graves for people killed during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, at a cemetery in Bucha in the Kyiv region on April 28. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)
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The United Nations Human Rights Council voted Thursday to deepen an investigation into alleged rights abuses by Russian forces near Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and other regions of the country.

The council in March established an international commission of inquiry to probe all human rights violations during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The vote on Thursday at a special session of the council passed a resolution urging the commission’s investigators to focus their efforts on incidents near Kyiv, as well as the regions of Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy, all of which were occupied by Russian forces in late February and March.

The measure passed with 33 votes in favor and only two countries — China and Eritrea — voting against. Russia was suspended from the council last month and has denied that its troops targeted civilians for abuse.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet told member states Thursday that her team had collected evidence of hundreds of killings of Ukrainian civilians by Russian soldiers and continues to verify allegations that “may amount to war crimes.”

“The scale of unlawful killings, including indicia of summary executions in areas to the north of Kyiv, is shocking,” Bachelet said in a video message to the council ahead of the vote. “These killings of civilians often appeared to be intentional, carried out by snipers and soldiers.”

More than 1,000 civilian bodies have been recovered in the Kyiv region, she said. In early April, Russian troops retreated from areas around the Ukrainian capital they had captured at the start of the war, leaving bodies in the streets and traumatized residents behind.

Bachelet said civilians had been killed while seeking food or water or fleeing in their vehicles, and some unarmed local men had been tortured before being killed. A monitoring mission from the U.N. office visited 14 towns and villages in the areas around Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv last week.

“This was the second OHCHR visit to these regions, and it pains me to imagine how many visits will be needed to document only a fraction of the egregious human rights violations that have occurred there,” Bachelet said.

The city of Mariupol, where Russian forces are closing in on the last Ukrainian holdout after an 11-week siege, remains inaccessible to international monitors and investigators. Bachelet said she was “shocked at the scale of the destruction” and the breaches of international law by Russian forces in the southern port city, where the U.N. estimates thousands of civilians have died.

Bachelet also said her office has verified a dozen cases of sexual violence across the country and is looking into more allegations. Most of the victims cited are women and girls, she said, though accounts of men and boys experiencing sexual violence have begun to emerge.

According to the U.N. Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, at least 100 children have been confirmed killed in the fighting in Ukraine in the past month, although it believes the actual figure is much higher.

“More children have been injured and faced grave violations of their rights, millions more have been displaced. Schools continue to be attacked and used for military purposes and water and sanitation infrastructure impacted,” UNICEF’s deputy executive director, Omar Abdi, told the U.N. Security Council on Thursday.

Ukraine has accused Russian troops of rape, a tough crime to prosecute

In a video address to the human rights council, Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister, Emine Dzhaparova, decried the “sheer horror” and “pure evil” of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Dzhaparova said Russia was committing “the most gruesome human rights violations on the European continent in decades.”

Russia’s war “could have utterly devastating long-term implications for human rights, a rules-based international order and peace and security if we do not continue to stand together as an international community,” Bathsheba Nell Crocker, U.S. representative to the U.N. in Geneva, said Thursday.

China said that it voted against the measure because it was “neither balanced nor objective" and would only serve to escalate tensions. Russia’s ambassador in Geneva also accused Western nations of “organizing ... to demonize Russia,” in a statement to Reuters.