Sexual Violence by Russian Troops in Ukraine “Chronically Underreported”

The United Nations demands an independent investigation into allegations of rape and sexual assault by Russian soldiers in Ukraine during the invasion. We speak with Pramila Patten, the U.N.’s special representative on sexual violence in conflict, who is just back from Ukraine and told the Security Council Monday about multiple shocking reports of rape and assault — all of which Russia has since denied. “We are dealing with a crime which is chronically underreported,” says Patten, who emphasized the need to establish safe spaces for victims to come forward and ensure no perpetrators be granted amnesty through a potential ceasefire or peace agreement. We also spoke with Oksana Potkalchuk, the executive director of Amnesty International Ukraine. She is currently investigating the alleged war crime.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN:The United Nations demands an independent investigation into allegations of rape and sexual assault by Russian soldiers in Ukraine. Pramila Patten (UN special representative on sexual violence during conflict), spoke Monday to the U.N. Security Council about the increasing number of reports about sexual abuse and human trafficking. Patten addressed the U.N. Security Council as well as the U.S. Institute of Peace on Monday.

PRAMILA PATTEN:We all have heard stories of horrendous acts of sexual violence. We also hear reports of gang-rape, rape before family members, sexual assault at gunspoint, and women who have become pregnant due to rape. Additionally, we have heard reports about refugee children and women being exploited not only by predators but traffickers who see this as an opportunity for abuse of the vulnerable. …

We have dispelled the insidious myth of sexual violence in conflict as inevitable. We now need to show, through proactive protection, empowerment efforts, that it can be prevented.

It is time to shift from best intentions to best practices to capture the girls and women who might otherwise slip through our safety nets. While the world’s eyes are on the Ukrainian women, girls, and boys caught in the crossfire and living in terror in occupied territories and forced to flee, they also look to us. We can’t and must not fail them.

AMY GOODMAN:Russia has denied the allegations that its troops were involved in sexual violence in Ukraine. This is Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s ambassador to the U.N.

VASSILY NEBENZIA: [translated]Since the beginning of our special military operation, the Kyiv regime has been a fan of accusations that Russian service personnel have committed sexual crimes. This tactic is also used by our Western colleagues. All of us remember how, in the Ukrainian media and in this room, our soldiers were repeatedly charged with sexual violence based on reports that contained allegedly reliable data. However, there was no evidence.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by two guests. Pramila Patten is the U.N. special rep on sexual violence in conflict. She recently returned from Ukraine. Oksana Pokalchuk is also with us. She is the executive director of Amnesty International Ukraine. She’s been investigating war crimes by Russian forces since the full-scale invasion began at the end of February.

Pramila Patten, let’s begin with you. You’re just off your address to the U.N. Security Council. Talk about what happened in Ukraine.

PRAMILA PATTEN:You will all remember that sexual violence first surfaced just a few days after Russia invaded Ukraine. Unfortunately, sexual violence continues to be reported even after the conflict has passed the 100-day mark.

From the 1st to 5th of May I was in Ukraine. I also traveled to Poland and Moldova. I did not meet with victims of sexual violence in Ukraine — I was in Lviv and Kyiv — for obvious reasons: security. However, I met with representatives of civil society organizations who are frontline service providers and have been involved with victims. I also met with the families of victims. I also met with the families of victims and signed a cooperation deal.

But what I can tell you is that the reports — credible reports — from civil society organizations, but also from government officials, like the Office of the Prosecutor General or the vice prime minister, Olha Stefanishyna, with whom I signed the framework of cooperation, shared a lot of information with me about brutal sexual violence being committed, significantly against women and girls, but also against men and boys.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Pramila, could you talk about the fact that, as many have pointed out, the number of sexual — incidents of sexual violence is likely massively underreported? Because a representative of the Ukrainian Women’s Fund, for example, said that sexual violence, in particular, is a hidden crime, because many women and girls will likely never come forward and report what’s happened.

PRAMILA PATTEN:You are absolutely correct. And that’s why I didn’t wait for accurate bookkeeping, hard data, to react. And that’s why I went to Ukraine, because we are dealing with a crime which is chronically underreported. And that’s my concern. And for me, going to Ukraine was to send a strong message, especially to victims, to urge them to break the silence, because their silence is the perpetrators’ license to rape.

As of the 3rd June, only 124 sexual violence reports are verifiable and of a verifiable character. They are currently being investigated by the Office of Human Rights Monitoring. The verification process is ongoing. And you can imagine that we — due to security and access constraints, the verification process is taking time. In 102 cases, the perpetrators were reported to be Russian Armed Forces and in two cases, Russian-affiliated organizations.

We are only addressing the tip of the iceberg. And this is why I signed the framework of cooperation and discussed with the government in Ukraine, but also in Moldova and Poland as refugee-receiving countries, the need to establish safe spaces which will be conducive — to provide a conducive environment for the victims to report, because due to stigma and a host of reasons, this crime is very much invisible.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I’d like to bring in Oksana Pokalchuk, a representative — you are the executive director of Amnesty international Ukraine. Your organization and you have been conducting an investigation into possible war crimes, including sex violence, and wider war crimes in and around the capital Kyiv. Could you tell us what you’ve found?

OKSANA POKALCHUK: Yeah, sure. So, the pattern of crimes committed by Russian forces in the Kyiv region — but not only, of course — that we have documented includes both unlawful attacks and willful killings of civilians. We must admit that there were many killings and that most of them were not extrajudicial executions. It was a willful act of murder.

NERMEEN SHAIKH:Describe the areas that you were in. Where did Amnesty do these investigations?

OKSANA POKALCHUK: Sure. Our last report was about Kyiv. We were in different areas in Kyiv that were under occupation for more than two years. So, it was Bucha, Hostomel Hostomel, Stoyanka, and many other cities and villages in Kyiv. So, for example, in Borodyanka, we found at least 40 civilians were killed in disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks which devastated an entire neighborhood and left thousands — really, thousands — of people homeless. We found 22 cases in Bucha of Russian forces committing unlawful killings. Yes, they were all extrajudicial executions, as I mentioned before.

AMY GOODMAN: And how do you respond, Oksana Pokalchuk, to Russia saying you haven’t provided the evidence?

OKSANA POKALCHUK:You know what I would say? We have evidences. And as far as I know, there are a couple of — there are a couple of cases that are already under the investigation by Ukrainian authorities — if you’re talking about sexual violence, of course, because it’s much more when we talk about other war crimes. But when we come back to the sexual violence, as far as I know, it’s a couple of cases are under the investigation. I believe that the matter will soon be openly and transparently dealt with in court. [inaudible]Bring justice.

AMY GOODMAN:Pramila Patten, I was curious about the debate in Ukraine over how explicit to be. And you, I’m sure, have dealt with this around the world. I mean, there’s been the firing of a human rights official in Ukraine for being extremely explicit about the rape of children. And there’s a whole discussion within the human rights and journalistic community in Ukraine. What can you say about how to talk?

PRAMILA PATTEN:This is where my office and United Nations system will provide support to the Ukrainian government. And that’s part of the framework of cooperation, which I have signed, that is providing support in the area of justice and accountability.

This is a sensitive topic. We are aware of the reasons victims do not report to us. This could be due to the retraumatization, or the revictimization. There are guiding principles that will help you engage victims, how to gather evidence, and how best to investigate. And one of the fundamental principles is the “do no harm” principle, which is extremely important.

And this is precisely why I will be deploying, following the framework of cooperation that I signed on the 3rd of May — will deploy staff with expertise on sexual violence documentation, investigation, prosecution. They will be embedded not only in the Office of the High Commissioner’s human rights monitoring team but also in the Office of the Prosecutor General to support the investigation, to support the documentation, to support the collection of evidence before the evidence trail goes cold. This is critical. If that stage goes wrong, there will be no justice.

And we have seen a lot in the past, whether it is in Iraq or with the Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar, who have been interviewed, for example, over 15 times, with all the inconsistency that comes along, then making cases untenable in a court of law. We want to change that culture of impunity and turn it into a culture for justice and accountability. It is essential that we do it right. And I’m very encouraged by the multiplicity of efforts to bolster justice, to bolster accountability.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Pramila, could you say — you’ve said explicitly that any peace agreement, whenever it comes, should state explicitly that there will be no amnesty for perpetrators of sexual violence. Can you please explain why you believe sexual violence should not be treated differently than other war crimes and in which instances amnesty has been granted to areas where sexual violence is common?

PRAMILA PATTEN: Well, history has taught us that during multiple peace negotiations, the first item that has been on the negotiation table — where, of course, women are conspicuously lacking — the question of amnesty for crimes of sexual violence has always been on the table. There are situations where women and peace are the only options. Women are often sacrificed, as is the norm.

I was encouraged by the willingness of the Ukrainian government to consider my suggestion for this priority area, this pillar within the framework of cooperation. It should be that in any ceasefire agreement or a peace agreement, there will be specific provisions to ensure that sexual violence crimes are not amnestied. War has its limits and international humanitarian law is clear. And sexual violence cannot be tolerated and must not be permitted to be forgiven. We have a solid normative framework, with Security Council resolutions on the issue of amnesty.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Oksana, there have been, of course, as you know, accusations of alleged war crimes — although, of course, much fewer in number — by Ukrainian forces. What do these allegations reveal about you? What have you discovered about the alleged war crimes committed by both Russian and Ukrainian forces in your investigations?

OKSANA POKALCHUK:Now, many territories where war crimes are alleged to have been committed or are currently being committed are under occupation. We must wait for the moment when Amnesty will be there. Ukrainian and international investigators will also be able to access this area to conduct investigation. It is impossible to determine whether war crimes have been committed without being present on the ground and collecting evidence. I mean, we can’t — in my opinion, we can’t presume it.

Of course, there are no war where there are one party of the war would be — I don’t know — will not violate international humanitarian law, and another part will. Of course, we have to face that, of course, Ukrainian army — I mean, we will find these evidences. But so far, we don’t have enough evidences to talk about it in legal terms. We will wait for liberation of the occupied territories and then go to the territory to gather information and evidence.

AMY GOODMAN:Pramila Patten, we conclude by saying that Ukraine was already a leading country in Europe when it comes to human trafficking. This is something you have also addressed. You can also describe the issue and the steps you took to address it.

PRAMILA PATTEN:With the displacement of nearly 14 million people over the past 100 days, mostly women, and 6.8 million children fleeing across borders, I see a human trafficking crisis within an humanitarian crisis. Human trafficking is not a separate problem. It is a symptom that a refugee crises breeds the exact conditions that humantraffickers prey on: economic impoverishment, and a lack or better options. From 2014, we know how human trafficking flourishes, both in Ukraine and the region. Human trafficking is a serious organized crime that crosses cultures, time zones, and geography. We also know that war for predators and human traffickers is not a tragedy; it is an opportunity.

In both Poland and Moldova, I observed that most refugees live with their host communities. There are serious security and protection issues in both countries. These reception centers are managed by volunteers with a minimal presence from the United Nations agencies. There is no oversight over accommodation offered by private citizens and there is no oversight of transportation arrangements. These are serious concerns. Although the reception centers were offered by the local government, they have been run by a variety of volunteers who offer services. From what I saw, they had little or no experience in supporting victims, victims, or persons at-risk of trafficking.

It is also evident that the refugee-receiving country are overwhelmed. They need urgent support to be able allocate sufficient resources to support responses, as even service providers and non-governmental organizations have limited capacity to provide adequate and safe response.

Therefore, I believe that it is crucial that the international community mobilises to ensure that effective protection systems in all transit and destination countries as well as at all border crossings are in place. Given the complexity and multiple dimensions of transnational organized crime, and the need for a coordinated and holistic response, it is imperative that humanitarian partners, law enforcement agencies and border forces, as well as political leaders, work together to provide a cross-border response. When I briefed Security Council on Monday, I called for a regional European compact to lead by the European Council. This is what I believe at this time.

AMY GOODMAN:Pramila Patten and Oksana Pkalchuk, the executive director of Amnesty International, Ukraine, want to thank Pramila Patten for being with them.