Bodies of evidence: Mistreatment of the dead in Ukraine is a crime against humanity

By Susan Breau, Professor of International Law, University of Victoria

Image of bombed building in Ukraine
Slavyansk, EU/ECHO September 2014

In recent weeks, reports have emerged from Ukraine of bodies abandoned, mutilated, and piled in mass graves. The attack on a theatre sheltering civilians in Mariupol was further aggravated when Russian soldiers allegedly fired on those attempting to retrieve the wounded and deceased. These actions are violations of international humanitarian law, customary law, human rights law, and criminal law. Both individually and collectively, these sources of law impose specific legal obligations on parties to armed conflict to protect civilians, including the missing, the deceased, and their surviving relatives.

These obligations apply to all parties to the armed conflict in Ukraine, regardless of the allegiance of the civilians concerned. Russia is responsible for protecting any persons it has detained, as well as civilians – both living and dead – in any areas it controls. In areas controlled by Ukraine, including those it has recovered from Russian control, it falls to Ukrainian authorities to ensure that the missing and the dead are treated with dignity. International agencies and civil society can and should assist wherever state capacity to fulfil these obligations is insufficient.

This briefing paper highlights some of the relevant obligations under international law, the violations ECC has identified in Ukraine, and recommendations for action. For further discussion of international legal obligations concerning treatment of the deceased and casualty recording in armed conflict, see ECC’s publication ‘The legal obligation to record civilian casualties of armed conflict’.