Civilian Harm in Ukraine
PAX unequivocally condemns the invasion of Ukraine and calls for an immediate return of all Russian troops to outside Ukrainian sovereign territory. The 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces is a flagrant violation of international law, a crime against peace, and consequentially, Russia is primarily responsible for harm and damages caused by this unnecessary, uncalled for and violent attack. We recognise the right of Ukraine to protect its people and defend its sovereignty including its territorial integrity.
We worry about the fate of all Ukrainian citizens regardless of their ethnic, religious, political or other affiliations as we see predictable patterns of civilian harm developing across Ukraine. Predictable because the repeated breaches of international humanitarian and human rights law at the hands of Russian forces and Russian backed forces that we have documented in the past decade in Ukraine and in other countries, such as Syria.[i]
Fighting a war in 2022 means that evidence of what is happening, where and by whom is readily available to a global audience. Everything from advanced satellite imagery to mobile phone videos from regular civilians captures troop movements, airstrikes or the positioning of landmines, making it nearly impossible for Russian troops to obscure the harm they cause to civilians.
- Facilitate the protection of civilians throughout Ukraine inclusively and without prejudice.
- Highlight immediate and long-term risks for an environmental disaster linked-with targeting nuclear and chemical facilities and long-term pollution that can affect lives and livelihoods.
- Increase understanding of the effects of the use of certain weapons on civilians, in support of the development of international standards and norm for better protection of civilians and their environment.
Growing evidence of civilian harm in Ukraine
Monitoring the conduct of hostilities in Ukraine as reported by many different sources, it is with deep sadness and great concern that we conclude that many international laws, rules of war, principles in international humanitarian law and norms of international solidarity have been purposively violated, resulting in over one and a half thousand civilian casualties, widespread damages to civilian infrastructure and millions of internally displaced persons and refugees. [ii] Our gravest concerns include, but are not limited to:
The use of explosive weapons in populated areas. PAX is extremely concerned about reported civilian deaths and injuries, and the damage to schools, hospitals, houses, electricity facilities and water installations resulting from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. Most of the casualties have been caused by the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area, including shelling from heavy artillery and multi-launch rocket systems, and missile and air strikes.[iii] The use of inaccurate delivery systems, multiple munitions, and/or munitions that create a large blast and fragmentation radius, should be avoided, as it carries with it a high likelihood of indiscriminate effects, as the ICRC points out.[iv] When used in populated areas, research indicates that worldwide nine out of ten casualties from explosive weapons use are civilians.[v] Negotiations on an international political declaration to prevent this harm are ongoing, under the presidency of Ireland. We call upon Russia to cease all attacks with wide area effect explosive weapons in towns and cities and the international community to better protect civilians from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas in Ukraine and elsewhere by supporting a strong political declaration.
The use of cluster munitions. Russian forces have used cluster munitions in civilian areas, such as Kharkiv in Ukraine.[vi] The use of cluster munitions gravely endangers the civilian population both during and after the conflict as unexploded bomblets do not distinguish between military and civilians. Their unexploded submunitions will create de facto minefields that can kill for decades. Russia has a long history of using these weapons. In 2008, during the invasion of Georgia, the Russian military saturated much of the countryside with cluster bombs. Again, during the war in Syria there have been widespread reports of Russian cluster munitions killing civilians throughout the country.[vii] In 2008, much of the world banded together to outlaw the use of cluster munitions including most NATO states. Today, 123 states joined the treaty and only a few notable holdouts continue to use these indiscriminate killers.
The use of landmines. Reports indicate corridors for civilians to flee have been mined.[viii] The purposeful mining of civilian escape routes is shocking and puts civilians at great risk. Ukraine is a party to the Mine Ban Treaty (MBT), banning anti-personnel landmines and while there are no reports of the use of these banned weapons it appears that Ukraine has used anti-tank landmines (not banned by the MBT) in its defensive posture.[ix] Video on YouTube and Twitter broadcast on 25 Feb show the emplacement of anti-tank landmines in Odessa.[x] Currently 164 nations have joined the MBT, outlawing these indiscriminate killers.[xi] Although Russia is not party to the Mine Ban Treaty, the use of any weapon in an indiscriminate way is unlawful.. Even though Anti-vehicle mines are not banned per se, their use will pose severe risks to civilians moving across or living close to areas contaminated with mines now, and in the future. Additionally, the Ukrainian forces were not observed to keep records of the locations of the mines for later removal.
The use of incendiary weapons. There are reports Russia has used incendiary weapons in Ukraine. On March 5 multiple accounts on Twitter posted images of unexploded Russian incendiary bombs in populated areas in Ukraine.[xii] The use of incendiary weapons can create tremendous harm to civilians, especially when used in populated areas.[xiii] Their use is regulated in Protocol III of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which restricts the use of incendiary weapons on “concentrations of civilians” and “forests or other kinds of plant cover.[xiv] The reported use in Ukraine on a populated area by Russia likely violates Protocol III on Incendiary Weapons, which Russia is a Party to.[xv]
The obstruction of free passage for civilians. Russian forces have repeatedly blocked civilians attempting to move out of conflict affected zones.[xvi] The rules of war dictate that all parties to conflict take all precautions to avoid harming civilians, to always consider civilians as civilians, and in all places in the country. Safe passage for those willing and able to escape should be urgently assured across war-affected areas inside Ukraine, regardless of the existence of humanitarian corridors or ceasefires that may temporarily be put in place. In addition, we are concerned by the many reports of violence and racism civilians from Ukraine who are not ethnically Caucasian face when they try to find safety in or outside Ukraine.[xvii]
The targeting of civilian structures. Multiple reports detail how Russian attacks on populated areas have resulted in direct hits on apartment buildings, shops and other civilian structures.[xviii] While it is not always clear if Russia hit those buildings on purpose or through carelessness[xix], Russia must apply more stringently the principle of distinction, take every precautionary measure to avoid civilian structures, and publicly assume responsibility for targeting mistakes. Russia has no public policy on Civilian Harm Mitigation; the tactics, techniques, and procedures used by militaries to protect civilians during military operations, track civilian harm, and mitigate future harm through the application of lessons learned.
The targeting of essential infrastructure and services without a military function or qualifying as a building with dual purpose use. In case of doubt whether an object which is normally dedicated to civilian purposes, is being used to make an effective contribution to military action, it shall be presumed not to be so used.[xx] Most concerning are the rapidly growing number of images of Russian attacks on school buildings and protected places such as hospitals.[xxi] We are gravely concerned by the attack on Ukrainian hospitals especially because of Russia’s long history of targeting hospitals and medical personnel in Syria.[xxii] The United Nations has documented numerous hospitals destroyed by Russian airstrikes in Syria.[xxiii] These grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, whether in Syria or in Ukraine must always be investigated as potential war crimes and if purposeful those involved must be brought to justice. Russia must apply more stringently the principle of distinction; take every precautionary measure to avoid damage to civilian structures; and publicly assume responsibility for targeting mistakes.
The environmental risks associated with the conflict. Beyond the dire direct humanitarian consequences of the conflict, a larger ecological threat awaits. Damages to power infrastructure resulting in water pumping system failings, puts the many mines in Ukraine storing toxic and nuclear waste at risks from flooding. Attacks on water facilities create risk to the environment for the amounts of chloride normally stored in these locations may leak into the environment. Attacks on fuel depots, especially when located in civilian poses larger public health risk to civilians in case of an explosion and subsequent fire and spills that could direct impact communities. Blasts from attacks on various ammunition depots and the subsequent spread of ammunition remnants can pose acute and chronic environmental health risks from exposure to toxic munitions remnants. Attacks on several nuclear industry sites, pose risks for radiation. Damage to locations storing or processing hazardous materials such as warehouses or factories can create environmental risks in Ukraine too. All the above has been observed in Ukraine already. [xxiv]
The lack of discipline shown by troops. Multiple reports indicate Russia is sending soldiers into Ukraine who are young, and not properly prepared for warfighting in the complex urban environment.[xxv] This raises concerns about the level of guidance and doctrine these soldiers receive on international law and the mitigation of civilian harm. This leads to unnecessary and disproportional violence against and exploitation of civilians.
The threat of use of weapons of mass destruction. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threat of use of nuclear weapons was heard, and clear.[xxvi] Any use of nuclear weapons, tactical or strategic will lead to unacceptable harmful consequences for civilians, who may be affected by the blast immediately, by radioactive fallout in the short term, and by radioactive contamination in the long run. An attack using nuclear weapons will by default violate the IHL principle of proportionality.[xxvii] Furthermore, the threat of use of nuclear weapons in any other context than self-defence in case of an existential threat, is widely considered illegal.[xxviii]
The use of disinformation. The rampant misrepresentations actively disseminated by Russia and supporting entities can place civilians in harm's way by disrupting access to services or by leading them to act in ways counter to their own interests. In addition, disinformation may undermine the efforts of humanitarian organizations providing relief to beleaguered civilians. Disinformation can also cause additional psychological stress and can be traumatic, damaging and enduring.[xxix]
The improper use of uniforms of the adversary. Several reports indicate that Russian troops have dressed up as Ukrainian troops and commandeered Ukrainian military vehicles to confuse Ukrainian defence forces.[xxx] This type of treachery violates IHL Customary Rule 62 on the improper use of flags or military emblems, insignia or uniforms of the adversary[xxxi], and poses unacceptable dangers for civilians, including civilians who attempt to get to safety and have a right of safe passage.
The arming of civilians. It is widely reported that some civilians have received arms from the Ukrainian military[xxxii] but have not received uniforms or insignia clearly distinguishing them as combatants. This poses a risk to those civilians and others. Civilians taking up arms can risk direct participation in hostilities which can make them a legitimate target for Russian invading forces, a situation Russian troops may seek to exploit to their benefit. It may also put non-armed civilians at risk. In addition, history shows us that handing out arms to civilians can lead to people exploiting the breakdown of government services for criminal activities, exploitation and other dangers for civilians.
General mobilisation of all men. Men are prohibited from leaving Ukraine, separated from families and forced to stay and resist occupation.[xxxiii] While it is understandable that Ukraine considers this conflict a fight for the existence of the country, it is concerning that men of all ages, walks of life, affiliations, physical and mental health are forced to resist invasion. We call on all military forces and authorities currently operating in Ukraine to protect the individual right of every man and woman to make a conscious decision to participate in the defence of Ukraine or not.
We call on Russia to immediately agree to a ceasefire, end this war of aggression, and to prepare for an immediate return of all Russian troops to outside the territory of Ukraine.
We call on all parties to this conflict to protect civilians; take every precaution to minimise harm to civilians and civilian infrastructure, immediately halt use of internationally banned weapons such as anti-personnel landmines and cluster munitions, show restraint, do not use explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas, make every possible effort in general to fight outside populated areas, guarantee safe and unrestricted passage to humanitarian organisations and guarantee all civilians unrestricted safe and secure passage.
We call on the international community to do everything possible to aid and support civilians in Ukraine as well as civilians from Ukraine seeking refuge. And to support Ukrainian civil society organizations and ministries with their work on documenting civilian harm and environmental concerns.
We call on the international community to undertake and support efforts to track and monitor civilian casualties and other types of civilian harm. Notably, to support with priority the establishment of the UN Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry[xxxiv] and to support independent harm tracking and monitoring initiatives including:
- The CIR Russia-Ukraine Monitor Map: https://maphub.net/Cen4infoRes/russian-ukraine-monitor
- Live UA map: https://liveuamap.com/
- Bellingcat: https://www.bellingcat.com/tag/ukraine/
- Airwars: https://airwars.org
Experts on civilian harm in Ukraine at PAX:
- General: Wilbert van der Zeijden, Protection of Civilians Team Coordinator
- Monitoring use of weapons: Marc Garlasco, Military Advisor
- Urban warfare; military doctrine: Marco Grandi, Military Advisor
- Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas: Roos Boer, Project Lead
- Conflict and environment: Wim Zwijnenburg, Project Lead
- Nuclear weapons: Wilbert van der Zeijden, Protection of Civilians Team Coordinator
[i] See for example: Amnesty International (2016): Syrian and Russian Forces Targeting Hospitals as a Strategy of War. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/03/syrian-and-russian-forces-targeting-hospitals-as-a-strategy-of-war/; Amnesty International (2020): Nowhere is safe for us’: Unlawful attacks and mass displacement in north-west Syria. https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/mde24/2089/2020/en/
[ii] UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) (Online): Ukraine: Humanitarian Impact Situation Report As of 3:00 p.m. (EET) on 11 March 2022. https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/2022-03-11_Ukraine%20Humanitarian%20Impact%20SitRep_final_0.pdf; Latest updates available at: https://www.unocha.org/ukraine?gclid=CjwKCAiAprGRBhBgEiwANJEY7L0VgpvUUhinAYuB1VAgmSCv6qm4ZbnwzNtOwqao4EmmI5fbXmUBtxoCj3MQAvD_BwE
[iii] The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) quoted in UN News (2022): Ukraine: UN chief calls for safe passage from conflict zones, rights body records 1,123 civilian casualties, WHO outlines health concerns. https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/03/1113372
[iv] ICRC (2022): Ukraine: Amid mounting human cost, parties must uphold international humanitarian law. https://www.icrc.org/en/document/ukraine-amid-mounting-human-cost-parties-must-uphold-international-humanitarian-law-0
[v] Guardian (May 25, 2021) Explosive weapons used in cities kill civilians 91% of the time, finds study. https://www.theguardian.com/law/2021/may/25/explosive-weapons-used-in-cities-kill-civilians-91-of-time-finds-study
[vi] Human Rights Watch (March 4, 2022): Ukraine: Cluster Munitions Launched Into Kharkiv Neighborhoods - Russian Forces’ Indiscriminate Attacks May Amount to War Crimes. https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/03/04/ukraine-cluster-munitions-launched-kharkiv-neighborhoods
[vii] Human Rights Watch (2016): Russia/Syria: Widespread New Cluster Munition Use - Unexploded Submunitions Threaten Civilians. https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/07/28/russia/syria-widespread-new-cluster-munition-use
[viii] Daily Beast (March 7, 2022): Escape Routes are Land Mined as Tanks Arrive in Kyiv Suburbs. https://www.thedailybeast.com/escape-routes-are-land-mined-as-tanks-arrive-in-kyiv-suburbs
[ix] Washington Post (March 4, 2022): Ukraine’s venerable Odessa readies for Russia’s brutal push up the Black Sea coast. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/03/04/ukraine-russia-odessa-black-sea/
[xi] United Nations (1997): Ottawa Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction: https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=IND&mtdsg_no=XXVI-5&chapter=26&clang=_en
[xii] Ukraine Weapons Tracker (March 5, 2022): Twitter post logged. https://twitter.com/UAWeapons/status/1500076486086254595?s=20&t=1u0P9eMyjiEKMZ8SnLysJw;
[xiii] For more information about the civilian harm caused by incendiary weapons, see for example: PAX (201), Put Out The Fire; strengthening international law and divestment policies on incendiary weapons, available at: https://paxforpeace.nl/media/download/PAX_REPORT_Put%20Out%20the%20Fire_FINAL_digital_singlepage.pdf.
[xiv] Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons Protocol III on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons, adopted October 10, 1980, entered into force December 2, 1983, art. 2, available at: https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/applic/ihl/ihl.nsf/
[xv] United Nations (1981): Protocol III to the Convention on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Certain Conventional Weapons which may be deemed to be Excessively Injurious or to have Indiscriminate Effects. https://treaties.unoda.org/t/ccwc_p3
[xvi] Mirror (March 7, 2022): Land mines found on Ukraine escape routes that lead to Russia and Belarus. https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/desperate-ukrainian-refugees-told-humanitarian-26401682
[xviii] Illia Ponomarenko (March 4, 2022): Twitter post logged. https://twitter.com/IAPonomarenko/status/1499749428403613699?s=20&t=1u0P9eMyjiEKMZ8SnLysJw
[xix] New York Times (March 6, 2022): Ukrainian Family’s Dash for Safety Ends in Death - Russian forces hit a bridge being used by civilians evacuating the fighting in Ukraine. Four people were killed. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/06/world/europe/ukrainian-family-killed-war.html
[xx] United Nations (1977): Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I). https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/ihl/WebART/470-750067
[xxi] Human Rights Watch (February 25, 2022): Ukraine: Russian Cluster Munition Hits Hospital - 4 Civilians Killed, 10 Wounded. https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/02/25/ukraine-russian-cluster-munition-hits-hospital
[xxii] New York Times (October 13, 2019): 12 Hours. 4 Syrian Hospitals Bombed. One Culprit: Russia. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/13/world/middleeast/russia-bombing-syrian-hospitals.html
[xxiii] New York Times (December 29, 2019): The U.N. Tried to Save Hospitals in Syria. It Didn’t Work - Russian and Syrian forces have bombed sites on a flawed U.N. no-strike list with impunity. Relief groups are giving up hope. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/29/world/middleeast/united-nations-syria-russia.html
[xxiv] PAX (2022): Environment and Conflict Alert Ukraine: A first glimpse of the toxic toll of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. URL:
[xxv] The Times (March 2, 2022): Russian captive soldiers cry for their mothers. URL: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/russian-captive-soldiers-cry-for-their-mothers-ckwrhh0w2Deutsche Welle (March 9, 2022): Russia admits to use of conscripts in Ukraine invasion — as it happened. https://www.dw.com/en/russia-admits-to-use-of-conscripts-in-ukraine-invasion-as-it-happened/a-61059223
[xxvi] The Guardian (February 28, 2022): Putin signals escalation as he puts Russia's nuclear force on high alert. URL: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/feb/27/vladimir-putin-puts-russia-nuclear-deterrence-forces-on-high-alert-ukraine
[xxvii] ICRC (online): Customary IHL Database Rule 14. Proportionality in Attack. Volume II, Chapter 4. https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docindex/v1_rul_rule14
[xxix] Eian Katz (2021): Liar’s War: Protecting Civilians from disinformation during armed conflict. In: International Review of the Red Cross (online). https://international-review.icrc.org/articles/protecting-civilians-from-disinformation-during-armed-conflict-914#footnote8_j86reip
[xxx] Independent (February 25, 2022): Russian soldiers dressed in Ukraine military uniforms attempt to enter Kyiv in captured vehicles. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/russian-soldiers-disguised-ukraine-kyiv-b2023087.html
[xxxi] ICRC (online): Customary IHL Database Rule 62. The Use of Incendiary Weapons against Combatants. Volume II, Chapter 18, Section F. https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docindex/v1_rul_rule62
[xxxii] Washington Post (February 25, 2022): As Russians advance on Kyiv, ordinary civilians heed calls to fight for Ukraine however they can. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/02/25/ukraine-civilians-weapons-molotov/
[xxxiii] Deutsche Welle (February 24, 2022): Ukraine president orders general mobilization - Men between the ages of 18-60 are prohibited from leaving the country. https://www.dw.com/en/ukraine-president-orders-general-mobilization/a-60908996
[xxxiv] United Nations Human Rights Council (March 4, 2022): Human Rights Council establishes an Independent International Commission of Inquiry to investigate all alleged violations of human rights in the context of the Russian Federation’s aggression against Ukraine. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/Pages/NewsDetail.aspx?NewsID=28203&LangID=E