Ukrainian Prisoners of War: The Situation Outline

September 5, 2022
Russia is preparing a so-called "tribunal" for Ukrainian prisoners of war. What is happening with them, and what can we do?

UkraineWorld asked Oleksandra Matviichuk, head of the Center for Civil Liberties. Key points - in our brief, #UkraineWorldAnalysis

On the Russian approach to prisoners of war and the current situation

  • It is difficult to talk about the real number of prisoners of war, the conditions of their detention, and their treatment, since we are in a full-scale war, when the party that launched aggression - Russia - flagrantly ignores international humanitarian law, and particularly the Third Geneva Convention on the Treatment of  Prisoners of War, 1949.
  • Information is collected sporadically, but it is possible to talk about trends. Despite the fact RF claims in official public statements that it is holding prisoners of war, it doesn't give them this legal status, because this status entails a range of rights.
  • The essence of the Third Geneva Convention is that prisoners of war must be treated humanely. It also calls for their evacuation as soon as possible to areas far away from combat zone; for prisoners to be provided with opportunities for intellectual, educational, and recreational pursuits; for regular opportunities for exercise; for the provision of food, water, and clothing in sufficient in quantity and quality, and for medical care to be available to the same extent as it is for the detaining belligerent's own soldiers. The information available so far indicates that Russia is not complying with these requirements.

Meanwhile, human rights activists are documenting numerous violations of rights of Ukrainian POWs, including beatings and torture, extrajudicial executions, the denial of proper medical care, detention in inhumane conditions, and more.

  • If Russia followed the requirements for the treatment of POWs, and the International Committee of the Red Cross had access to the prisoners of war in full compliance with its mandate, then it would not be so difficult and urgent to ascertain the numbers, conditions, and treatment of Ukrainian POWs.

On the so-called "tribunal" for Ukrainian prisoners of war from Azovstal

  • Prisoners of war can be tried only for war crimes. In this case, a court must meet criteria of providing due process of law, and crimes must be proven. It is a violation of the laws of war to try prisoners of war simply for engaging in belligerent actions like the armed defense of their country.
  • Russia's so-called "tribunal" is a Russian information operation. In this regard, there is no place for law, but only for quasi-legal processes for the furtherance of Russia's political and military aims. Soldiers from Azov were chosen for this show trial because they are the most prominent prisoners of this war. Russia took preparatory actions for that - listed Azov as a terrorist organization, even though it is simply a regular formation of the National Guard of Ukraine.
  • A large number of prisoners of war are being held in the territory of the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The show trial is also planned to be held there. The occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions are a "legal offshore" created by Russia in the information space in which Russia controls all actions and affairs, but can disclaim de jure responsibility for the actions of the occupying authorities they de facto control. Thus, in order to absolve themselves of responsibility for violating international humanitarian law, Russia will shift responsibility to the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics (DNR and LNR), which it recognized as independent states on the eve of the full-scale invasion.
  • We should respond. Regarding the informational dimension of the show trial, our task is to clearly state that there is no such thing as the DNR or LNR, but rather only Russian occupation administrations that call themselves as such. Russia has effective control over those territories and bears full responsibility for all the violations taking place within them. Therefore, we must not let Russia legitimize this "legal offshoring" in the information space.
  • Russia is blackmailing Ukraine with the fate of imprisoned Ukrainian citizens in this war by claiming that the so-called DNR and LNR have launched procedures for lifting the moratorium on the death penalty (which remains de jure illegal in Russia proper). Both Ukraine and the international community must clearly state that it is Russia, and only Russia, that has launched this process on captured and controlled territories.
  • Russia has been using such blackmail since 2014, as was evident in the process of exchanges for Kremlin political prisoners undertaken in the years before the full-scale invasion. In all the exchanges and negotiations, Russia put forward political demands. It used people to achieve political goals, such as resuming water supplies to occupied Crimea, amending the Ukrainian constitution, or implementing a total amnesty for Russia's war criminals.

On actions to solve the problem

  • There are two questions to be addressed: how to secure the release of Ukraine's POWs as soon as possible, and how to bring to justice the higher military and political leadership of the RF and those who have directly committed crimes against POW. The first one is highly urgent. The second one is for the long run.
  • Regarding prisoner releases, the whole UN system, along with the systems of the OSCE and the Council of Europe, are in their current states unable to secure the release of even one prisoner. It means that we live in a world where not only Ukrainian Mariupol is in ruins, but the whole global system of peace and security.
  • There isn't a well-established path to solve the problem, and we are looking for the right legal mechanisms to use. These mechanisms ought to be closely connected to political mechanisms. Russia fully ignores international law, which is why we will need different political, economic and military tools to release Ukraine's POWs. We need a complex strategy, and there isn't a simple solution here.
  • Human rights activists are trying to take the most from the international system of peace and security that it can offer in its current state to ensure that Ukraine's POWs survive to be released, whenever it happens. They are also collecting information that will help to bring to justice those who have committed war crimes against POWs.
  • The work on release efforts is not public. In public, activists are working to highlight Rusisa's obligations to Ukrainian POWs. We are doing it through reports, presentations, and advocacy to draw the attention of the international community. This is extremely important because Russia is committing numerous war crimes, and attention to them is scattered. Our task is to keep the topic of the rights of POWs at the top of the agenda of the international community.

This material was prepared with financial support from the International Renaissance Foundation.

Oleksandra Matviichuk, Head of the Center for Civil Liberties