The Russian Invasion of Ukraine: A Human Rights Perspective
(The information in this article is up-to-date until 25/04/2022)
The conflict which proliferated through Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in breach of Art. 2(4) of the UN Charter has now turned into a Humanitarian Crisis. The consequences and fallout of the conflict intensifies daily, like a cancer that spreads through the bloodstream.
Through the video footage which has been published, it is rather evident that mass military attacks on major parts of Ukraine no longer leave key cities in a habitable condition for civilian Ukrainians. Therefore, most citizens and individuals of other nationalities residing in the country started evacuating Ukraine to various bordering countries and other European states in the region as refugees. One could clearly determine that these individuals, upon escaping Ukraine’s terrorized towns into neighboring states, satisfy the definition who a ‘refugee’ is as per Art. 1A(2) of the Refugee Convention; whereby ‘The term refugee shall apply to any person who: owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who… is unwilling to return to it.’
Within the first 12 days of the invasion, more than two million people fled the country and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that millions more could be displaced. As of 1st April, the official figures indicated that 4,137,842 refugees were on the move.
Unfortunately, even though countries do support these refugees it is not done equitably. A lot of attention was drawn to African and South Asian students and other citizens living in Ukraine, who faced difficulties in fleeing and getting past the border. Even though a spokesperson for the The State Border Guard Service stated that there is absolutely no division on the grounds of nationality, citizenship, or class at the border, some victims of discrimination, like Gifty Naana Mensah, a medical student at university in Ternopil in Western Ukraine from Ghana said, ‘The Ukrainians always came first, even though we Africans would be there for days and sometimes three days with no food. Everyone was just exhausted. Anytime Ukrainians came, they told us to go back. They were shouting at us, ‘Go back!’.’ She had spent 8 hours walking to the border and became dizzy while waiting for guards to let her into the immigration control area but even then, she was told she must wait until thousands of Ukrainians had gone through. The ill-treatment on the basis of nationality/race is apparent, and the fact that she felt like an African and not a Ukrainian, sufficiently depicts the prevailing racism in the exit of refugees. Mensah is just one person and there are hundreds of thousands that had undergone the same discrimination.
A businessman from Bangladesh, Pranab das Gupta, said that foreigners including himself were asked to buy bus tickets and within a short time, once the journey had commenced, they were taken off the bus and threatened and made to walk to the border control area. Upon arrival, all the foreigners were lined up and only Ukrainians were allowed in. It begs the question as to if this is equality? Do these actions upload human rights?
Gifty Naana Mensah arriving in Przemysl from Ukraine (Anna Liminowicz / The Globe and Mail)
This crisis affects all persons irrespective of age, gender, religion, or any other status. By the end of March, a month since the invasion, 4.3 million children (more than half the country’s estimated 7.5 million child population) have been displaced according to UNICEF statistics. Catherine Russell, chief of UNICEF said, “The war has caused one of the fastest large-scale displacements of children since World War Two”. This includes 1.8 million who crossed the border and 2.5 million who are internally displaced. Children do not typically possess the means of their own survival, they are dependent on their parents or guardian. When there are too many children in the system, they often get neglected; thus, they could be coerced into getting involved in illegal activity such as drug pushing or may even succumb to dangers of child trafficking.
According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, children have a right to life, survival, and development (Art. 6). The rights that extend to children are not limited to these articles, however Russia intentionally attacked civilians hindering the positive development of Ukrainian children, which is a clear contravention of Art. 6. Eastern Ukraine’s hostilities escalated on 21st February, to mark 350,000 child victims with no access to education. One could deem this an endangerment and violation of children’s right to their futures. The attacks on schools have caused several casualties and the surviving children are undoubtedly going to be left with lasting mental health issues. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression are the most common health disorders prevalent amongst children who are victims of terror.
Ukraine Refugees with children arrive at the Palanca border crossing Moldova (UNICEF / Siegfried Modola)
Families arrive in Berdyszcze Poland (UNICEF / Tom Remp)
This war did not just target a nation, this war targeted civilians too. On 9th March 2022, Russian airstrikes through the Mariupol Maternity ward caused at least 17 people to be injured, including children, women and doctors. ‘At least five people have died since the attack’, reported City officials to CNN. There is footage of pregnant women who have sustained injuries, walking out of the attacked premises. This is a direct violation of women’s rights. Art 12 (2) of the CEDAW Convention states that ‘States Parties shall ensure to women appropriate services in connection with pregnancy, confinement and the post-natal period, granting free services where necessary…’. While it is difficult to hold Ukraine accountable for being unable to provide the adequate protection to the women who were seeking medical attention in the ward, Russia should be held accountable for its use of arbitrary force. In relation to this attack, one could also note the violation of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions 1949.
“The encircled city of Mariupol is running out of its last reserves of food and water,” said Mr. Phiri, a spokesperson on behalf of the World Food Programme. “No humanitarian aid has been allowed into the city since it was encircled on 24th of February. The only way to reach Mariupol is through humanitarian convoys which until now have not made it through.” The Russian military attacked more than two places that give medical support to Ukraine. Day by day access to healthcare, food, and water become a challenge. These are basic human rights that every human being deserves to have and these must be fulfilled without any doubt. The UN tries its best to bring in the necessary supplies for the survival of these innocent lives, along with the humanitarian aid granted by the EU member states. Moreover, the continued necessity of military assistance must not be denied. Russia’s keenness in the nuclear power plants in Ukraine has raised concerns about the possibilities of the invasion leading to nuclear warfare.
On a conclusive note, as the conflict remains ongoing, one must also note the accumulation of charges of War Crimes against Russian military officials during the attacks in the cities of Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Kyiv, which include multiple rapes, looting of civilian property such as food and other basic needs, and aggravated violence on civilians. Hugh Williamson of the Human Rights Watch stated that these acts of the ‘Russian forces should be investigated as war crimes’, alongside their multitude of other violations of International Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Law allegations, possibly before the International Criminal Court.
The article was written by Lahan Sandul Welgama (final-year undergraduate law student of the University of London) and supervised: by Hiruni Jayawardena (Attorney at Law, PhD (Reading), Masters in Human Rights (Colombo), MA in English (Reading), LLB (London))