“HIDING BEHIND WOMEN AND CHILDREN”: CIVILIANS USED BY RUSSIA AS HUMAN SHIELDS DURING OCCUPATION OF CRIMEA
On 21 February 2019, a new submission was sent to the International Criminal Court regarding the use of civilians during the capture of strategic targets in the Crimean Peninsula by Russian soldiers in 2014. The submission was prepared by the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union NGO (UHHRU) and the Regional Center for Human Rights NGO (RCHR) in cooperation with the Prosecutor’s Office of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.
The authors established that Russian Federation’s forces were not only intentionally and deliberately moving civilians closer to the facilities of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, but were also standing behind these people during the blocking and capture of these facilities. Under such circumstances, Ukrainian soldiers were unable to use force to defend against the attacks.
These human shields were made up of 4 categories of civilians, among them Crimeans with pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian views, civilians brought from Russia to take part in the peninsula’s occupation, as well as representatives of the Cossacks and the so-called “Crimean Self-Defense”. “There were also people among the civilians that did not belong to neither of the above categories. For instance, we established that Serbian Chetniks were involved in the assaults,” says Maksym Tymochko, UHHRU lawyer. “Based on our information, at least 10 military facilities belonging to the Armed Forces of Ukraine were captured in this manner with the use of at least 1,000 civilians.”
Particularly indicative is the capture of the naval base in the town of Novoozerne, carried out with the use of at least 300 people, men and women as well as adolescents and the elderly.
“According to Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the ICC, such actions are considered a separate type of war crimes,” says Igor Ponochovnyi, Deputy Prosecutor of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. The prohibition of the use of human shields is also enshrined in Article 28 of the Geneva Convention (IV), Article 51 of the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions and Rule 97 of customary international humanitarian law. “Moreover, intentional use of civilians to shield military operations violates the requirement to take all possible measures to separate civilian objects and military targets,” stresses the Deputy Prosecutor. The Prosecutor’s Office of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea is currently conducting a pretrial investigation under Article 438 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code.
The use of civilians as human shields in armed conflicts is not a unique phenomenon. “However, it should be noted that the use of human shields during the active phase of the occupation in February – March 2014 differs from the usual interpretation of this crime in international practice”, says Vitaliy Nabukhotnyi, RCHR lawyer.
Among the civilians used as human shields were people with pro-Russian views whose participation was encouraged as well as those who gathered in front of military targets as a result of threats or blackmail. “In such cases, the occupying power is required to prevent the presence of civilians in potentially dangerous places. Furthermore, representatives of the Russian Federation should have refrained from using civilians for protecting their own armed forces”, summarizes Vitaliy.
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